I know that many people go to Europe without speaking a word of another language and they get by. But I think they miss a lot. Maybe if you're spending two weeks in a tourist area where maybe the desk clerks speak English and all you want is to lie on the beach......but that's not the way that we travel. Having some comprehension of what is going on 'in the neighborhood' is part of what makes travel so interesting to us.
At least a couple of times a week, we like to buy the local newspaper. When the Tour de France is in progress, we like to by L'Equipe, the French daily sports newspaper. (Full disclosure: When we can find it, we also buy the English-language International Herald Tribune.) I can spend hours with my little dictionary trying to make sense of editorial opinions in several languages. Of course I miss a lot in the translation, but we find out lots of things that we'd never know otherwise. Certainly a lot of things that never make it into US papers.
We also like to look at the bulletin boards outside the local supermarket and browse the listings posted in the window of the real estate office. You know you're in an area that attracts a lot of Brits when the real estate listings are in English.
It's also nice to be able to ask for things in the local language and maybe even understand the answer. Not to mention reading signs and finding the kind of store that you want.
So, what to do when you're planning to visit five countries all speaking different languages? Portugese, Spanish, French, Italian, German--those were all on our planned itinerary. Now, I'm interested in languages, but getting comfortable in five was way beyond my capabilities, especially with virtually no opportunity to practice speaking most of them.
For speaking, I decided to concentrate on Spanish and French for a couple of reasons. My comfort level with French is pretty good as a result of spending several months there on the last trip where, believe it or not, my high school French actually kicked in. Spanish is commonly spoken here in the American Southwest and I had taken a couple of conversational courses a few years ago.
PBS broadcasts both a French course and a Spanish course, usually at an ungodly hour, of course, but thanks to our digital recorder I was able to view and review episodes. The Spanish one, called Destinos, is in the form of a telenovela, sort of a prime time soap opera, and I really got caught up in the plot and could hardly wait for the next episode. (Disclaimer: I have never watched an English-language soap nor Desperate Housewives either.)
I bought a couple of cheapie computer-based language courses which rapidly got boring although I'm sure I learned something from them. Then I discovered a multitude of on-line resources for language learning many of them complete with sound. The first thing I learned was that I was never going to get comfortable with Portugese because it is not pronounced at all like it is spelled. No, it's nothing like Spanish. So I quickly gave up on Portugese and descided that Italian was going to be such a small part of the trip that I didn't spend much time on it either. Oddly enough, I thought I was more comfortable in German than I turned out to be when we got there.
Phrase books were the answer. I got a phrase book for each language and concentrated on the important things, like my infamous trio, 'please', 'thank you' and 'where is the toilet?' There's something more compelling about learning a phrase when you actually have a need for it as opposed to just learning because it's in the curriculum. More than once we had situations where I needed to say something and if I had time to plan ahead and look it up, I could manage to spout the necessary words almost as if I knew what I was talking about.
Road signs adhere to a common standard and you soon learn that 'sortie' and 'ausfart' and 'salida' all mean 'exit'. You learn that 'ouvert' and 'geoffnet' both mean 'open'. Und so weiter, ooops, I mean and so on.
We discovered that learning to speak Portugese was totally unnecessary as almost everyone we encountered in the hospitality industry spoke perfectly good English. This included the young man at our hotel in Faro who was from the Cape Verde Island, off the coast of Africa, who had come to Portugal to go to school and was still going to school ten years later because he didn't want to go home. His mom, of course, couldn't understand why.
At first we thought that we had 'American' stamped on our foreheads because everyone spoke English to us before we opened our mouths. Then one day on the number 15 tram to Belem from downtown Lisbon, I realized that wasn't it at all. We were sitting down and there were several young women standing in front of us, hanging on to the overhead straps. One tried to start a conversation with another and they went through about three languages before they settled on English. Neither was a native English speaker, but that was the common language. Bingo. (We may still have that "American" sign on our foreheads but that's another issue.)
By the time we left Portugal, I felt pretty comfortable with simple reading comprehension but my speaking the language had gone nowhere.
Spain was another country, literally. Only in two hotels did we find clerks who spoke English and we rarely found anyone else who spoke more than a few words of English. The B&B we stayed at in Zalamea de Real was operated by a German woman married to a Spaniard and her English was impeccable and such a relief after a long period of not being able to speak fluently to anyone but each other.
However, the Spanish people we met were so invariably courteous and willing to work with my meager grasp of their language that it wasn't long before I was getting comfortable with basic communications. The experts are right--there's nothing like total immersion. The key is to get them to slo-o-o-w down.
On the other hand, I was never able to understand a single word of Spanish TV. Those people talk really, really fast. And they move their mouths in a way that Americans do not. Which brings up another topic: How people form sounds with their mouths. I began to be fascinated by the differences in mouth movements and found that nine times out of ten you don't have to hear what someone is saying to spot the language they are using because the mouth movements give them away. At least this is true in Western Europe and I'm sure there is a scholarly paper that needs to be written on this topic, although with the glut of PhD's out there, it probably has already been done.
In France we encountered many people with at least a smattering of English. Sometimes you had to get to know them before they would try speaking our language. Apparently they were willing to suffer my French instead of being embarrassed about how they spoke English. But in contrast to the urban myth, we never once, not even in Paris, had someone refuse to deal with us or be rude to us because my French is not perfect. Not once.
I think that perhaps this particular myth may have sprung up because most Americans don't often encounter foreigners who speak really bad English. If you have, think about what a hard time you had understanding them. I've had French people attempt to speak English to me and it took a couple of times before I picked up on what they were trying to say through that French accent. Now turn this around and figure out how bad I must have sounded with my American accent in French. Sometimes I'm amazed that anyone understood me, but maybe I'm not as bad as I think I am. At any rate, I suspect that this is the stuff of misunderstandings and the origin of the old canard about the Parisian who refuses to accept anything less than perfect French. That just was not true in our experience.
About all I learned in Italian was how to ask for a room since we were there for such a short time. Anyone who's been to an Italian restaurant can read 80% of an Italian menu although the menu will probably be available in English if you ask. Which brings up another funny topic: menu translations.
In many of the places we ate, even if the waiter didn't speak English, there would often be an English-language menu. I sometimes thought about offering my services for free to clean up the translation to English because some of the descriptions were pretty hilarious. Sometimes it was easier to try to figure out the menu in the original language. This too is part of the charm of traveling.
In far northern Italy, on the Austrian border, we discovered that they actually speak German. We went to a pension to ask about a room and my broken Italian was met first with puzzlement, then with German. We got along fine with these folks after we figured out what language to speak.
But I never did come to grips with German the way I thought I should. I had two years of it in college and did quite well, and although that was a long time ago, I thought I could cope. But my ability to deal with those yard-long German words had vanished. Very simple sentences were my limit and one attempt at trying to read the German newspaper was enough. And the menus--I had no idea what most of those dishes were if they weren't wurst. Fortunately, a lot of Germans speak English and we could fall back on the English-language menu. The only real problem I had was trying to figure out what the daily special was in a restaurant in a little mountain village in the Black Forest. By the time the non-English-speaking waitress and I negotiated the translation, I realized she was talking about wild mushrooms and we had the most wonderful dish of chanterelles that I've ever eaten.
The place that I was most uncomfortable language-wise, as I have mentioned elsewhere, was western Belgium where they speak a variety of Dutch. I couldn't read the menus and couldn't read the roadsigns and felt quite adrift. However, Belgium has French as one of its official languages and those folks are quite accustomed to speaking multiple tongues. In fact, in Bruges, it was pretty funny that the hotel clerk greeted us with Bonjour and we conversed in French until he took our passports, when he switched to flawless English. Likewise the menus were available in multiple languages--just tell the waiter which one you'd like. He understands English.
Our attempts to communicate in the local language were invariably well-received and resulted in a far different experience than if we had tried to go with English alone. You can get a meal and a room without knowing the language, but you can't talk about the weather and the drought with the B&B proprietor or discuss how lovely it is in the Auvergne with the bistro waitress about to leave on her vacation. The only hazard is that once you begin the dialogue, most people will assume that you really do understand everything they say and will rattle on at breakneck speed. I just nod my head and hope that I haven't agreed to anything serious.
People are almost always open to a friendly overture. Al seems to be able to hold long conversations with anyone without any common language. He once held a ten-minute conversation on Honda lawnmowers with our host at a B&B in the Alsace and neither of them spoke the other's language. He's also negotiated me in and out of the emergency room and has no qualms about going to the bakery by himself. Maybe it's all a matter of attitude. And not being afraid of looking like an idiot.