In Bangkok, I learned how to say numbers, greetings, “Thank you,” “Yes/No,” “No meat,” “How much?” and the names of my favorite dishes in Thai (although if you asked me to say them now, all you would get is a puzzled stare).
In Buenos Aires, my Spanish improved to the point where I could have very basic conversations with people (it especially helped if those people were under the age of 10).
In Berlin, my German vocabulary has topped out at “How are you?” “Good-bye,” “Excuse me,” “Yes/No” and “Breakfast” (yes, I wake up too late most days to technically have this meal, but I just like saying “frustuck” (frouh-stook)).
While I firmly believe it is important to respect the language and customs of your host country, my desire to become a polyglot is still stuck at desire rather than actual polyglot-ness (maybe because I use words like polyglot-ness). Besides, I have heard that learning German is not the easiest of tasks. When I ask people who are actually enrolled in German classes what it’s like to learn the language, the answers have ranged from “hard” to “very hard” to “I want to die.”
Before this trip, I had hoped that simply being around a language would make it more familiar to me or easier to pick up. But I have discovered I am no sponge to foreign phrases or strange syllables. My language acquisition device only kicks in when necessary.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it turns out she’s also got a part-time job as the coat-check girl of language learning. By that I mean she’ll check in a few words at a time at an outrageous cost. She’ll begrudgingly hang them up in the closet of my mind, but doesn’t seem to notice or care when they fall to floor and become dusty and rumpled. When I try to retrieve them, she makes me wait a long time and there’s no telling what may be missing when she hands them over.
I feel kinda bad that I haven’t learned more German, but I’m impressed that I haven’t had to. I’d say it’s almost a guarantee that anyone under the age of 35 in Berlin will speak English fairly fluently, and most everyone else will have an inkling of what you’re saying.
In fact, I have found that in Berlin the most reliable indicator of English proficiency is someone saying, “My English is not good.” These words tend to preface intense, deep conversations on topics from psychology to politics; they crop up again when the speaker is trying to remember words like “oscillate” or “synergistic.”
Plus, sometimes you don’t need words at all to communicate.
Late one night, I stepped into a kebab place for a doner (meat shaved from a vertical spit and served on flatbread). I wanted to know what type of meat was being used, but the man facing me across the counter was an older gentleman who didn’t speak English. No one was around to help translate. After I said, “Hallo,” I was at a loss for words.
Stepping closer to the counter, I pointed at the rotating meat and said loudly, “Mooooo or bawk-bawk-bawk?” (Complete with arm-flapping movements, I might add.)
He tucked his hands into his armpits and literally bent over laughing. He straightened up, shook his head and said, still laughing a little, “Moooo.”
He then proceeded to shave one of the largest piles of meat I have ever seen onto my flatbread.
And it was, as they say around here, sehr gut.