For the first time in my life, I traveled to a country where I didn’t speak the language. I have lived in and visited many Spanish-speaking countries, but never a nation where they didn’t speak English or Spanish. Since I’m fluent in both of these languages, it was always easy to get around, order food and ask for things we needed on our trips.
It was quite different in Europe this summer, but what an incredible learning experience it was for me.
When we decided we were going to take the family to France and Italy, I went duteously (as any language teacher would) out to the store to buy Italian and French language learning programs. I only had a few weeks to learn, so I went straight for the travel programs, thinking I would learn enough to get by on our vacation. I looked through all of the varied programs on the shelves and decided on a couple audio programs with booklets from a popular language learning company.
On my way home from the store, I popped the French audio into my car CD player. The first thought I had was: Are you kidding me? There was no way in h-e-double hockey sticks, I was going to learn the anything from these programs. The lessons consisted of throwing long, complicated phrases at me that I was just supposed to remember. There was no “teaching” involved and no language learning methodologies employed. The best I could get from it was a few words like hello, thank you and goodbye ( listening to the program three or four times).
After that disappointment, I moved on to the Italian language program, hoping for a better experience. No such luck. It was exactly the same type of program. Again, I was given long phrases with all sorts of verb tenses and grammar structures and expected to memorize what I was hearing. In addition, everything was spoken by a native speaker with a strong accent, so I couldn’t even understand what words they were saying. Needless to say, it was a frustrating experience and I gave up quickly.
When we arrived in Paris, I used the three French words I had learned from the language program, and that was it. I pointed to things and asked strangers questions in English. I felt so inept when they answered me in their perfect English. I wanted to tell them: Hey, I may not be able to speak French, but I speak Spanish you know! I’m sure they could have cared less, since many of them spoke three or four other languages.
Then off to Italy. I knew about the same amount of vocabulary in Italian as I did in French, about three or four words. The difference in Italy was that Italian and Spanish have many similar words, so I definitely had an easier time communicating. Whenever I was having trouble in English, I’d just throw out some Spanish and see if they understood. Many times, either the person spoke Spanish or the words were so similar to Italian they knew what I was saying.
By far, the most frustrating part of not being able to communicate well in both countries was choosing what to eat at restaurants. I had no idea what I was reading on the menus. My main concern was steering clear of many of their most popular foods like: rabbit, boar, tripe (cow’s intestine) and other strange animal parts. I had to do my best to understand the waiter and the menu and hope for the best. Who knows what I may have eaten.
Overall, I learned a lot from my trip to Europe.
First, the travel language programs on the market are not effective at all. I was surprised to find out that the big name brand companies offer such inadequate products. You definitely can’t expect to be able to communicate or even just get by in a foreign country by listening to these programs. After this experience, I’m considering my company, KAMMS (we make occupational Spanish and English language programs) making travel programs that actually work for people.
Secondly, I realized one important reason why it’s so easy for Europeans to learn foreign languages. They have the luxury of being in close proximity to many different countries (where they speak many different languages) that are all within a quick, inexpensive bus ride, train ride or flight from their hometown. That really is a huge advantage for easily picking up multiple languages.
My family and I only spent a couple weeks in France and Italy, but we learned a lot of words and phrases just out of necessity and exposure to the new languages. We all agreed that if we had a little more time, we would have easily picked up the languages enough to communicate well. So the next time you’re surprised by or even envious of how many languages a European speaks, remember that they definitely have language learning advantages over us more secluded Americans.