Fluent in 14 Languages

In a recent article, I stated that, “Even in our native language we have difficulty sometimes, much less the struggle to find the right word in a second language”. And I promised to return to that subject in a separate article. This is that article. (You should be hearing the tell-tale chime of Law & Order here)

Like many, I took two years of Latin in junior high and Spanish for two years in high school. I remember very little beyond some basics and I am definitively not fluent in either. I consider myself lucky to be somewhat fluent in my native tongue. I have also been lucky enough to travel the world while I was in military service. Everywhere you go you quickly learn some basics, hopefully. But constant travel, limited conversations, regional dialects, some sounds that just don’t come naturally to a non-native speaker, slang terms, and all manner of other things makes it extremely difficult to learn even the basic pleasantries or inquiries. I won’t even touch on reading or writing a second language that does not share the same Latin alphabet the English uses. That is gifted and the definition of fluency by far.

Knowing my own limited set of linguistic skills, I could not endeavor to even learn enough conversational phrases to rely on in so many languages. I had to narrow my focus to just a few words in each. And commit them to memory with the correct pronunciation, intonation, and inflection. There is little disrespect greater than using a language poorly. Oh, they may giggle or correct you with a smile, as I am sure they appreciate your efforts. But they will not feel respected. I had to pick a few, learn them in different languages and dialects, and learn them well enough to use them without embarrassment.

And there is a fun exercise for you. If you could pick only a handful of words to know in any language, what would they be? Let me tell you what I chose.

First, I would learn the most common greeting. There is no better way to endear someone to you than to say “hello” in their language. I learned the Islamic greeting of “Assalamu alaikum” in the Middle East. I would use it when addressing Muslim men, as speaking to an Islamic woman without strict permission just didn’t happen. It did not matter to anyone I met that I was not Muslim. I could use their common greeting correctly showing proper respect for their culture. And I think it was always appreciated. Their response to me would differ from their response to another believer, as the Hadith prohibits saying the word “Salam” to non-believers. But we could greet each other in a way most comfortable to them. That is always a good start when dealing with people. Other places, like Japan, it is a little trickier. The greeting you use has everything to do with your relationship to the person you are greeting. Whether you position is subservient, equal, or superior to theirs. And, how well or long you have known them. Of course, then there is the bow. There are three types. Again, with differing degrees and occasions of use. And the attention to detail in speaking and using these gestures has always been received kindly. Then there is something as simple as a wave. In Italian culture, it is disrespectful to point your fingers at someone, so when they wave their hands are cupped facing them. But if nothing else, knowing how to greet someone in their language and observing the differences in their cultures, goes a long way in communicating.

After the expansive requirements of greeting someone, I chose to learn how to say, “Thank you”. Luckily, this phrase does not have a huge amount of gender variation or formality requirements, and often uses common root words found across many languages. It was a lot easier than learning greetings. And as for ceremony, with any culture where bowing is common, one would always offer their thanks with a bow. Remember too, that in any language or culture, a smile means the same thing universally.

So out into the world I would go. Yes, I would pick up specific words for specific needs a long the way. Bathroom was always one. You just need the correct word. The inflection of your voice is all that is needed to make it a question. Beer/Bar was usually one, as we imbibed well back in the day. And, of course, there are others we commonly learned that are not worth repeating. Amazingly, we always learned a lot of swear words. Maybe that goes without saying.

I have found, in all my travels, that is all you really need to communicate. Hello and thank you. We have always been able to communicate with each other beyond any language barrier. It becomes this subtle dance of gesture and pantomime. Moving your hand across the other as if holding a pen to indicate you want to write something or would like your meal’s check. Pointing at something in the market and touching your wallet to inquire how much it costs. A whole stage full of charades played out to convey what the other is saying. I won’t say this can’t be frustrating at times. But with some determination and creativity it most often works. You can communicate your needs, wants, and feelings to almost anyone without a shared language base. If you know how to say “hello” and “thank you”, it helps with their determination to work with you to communicate. Learning how to correctly communicate those two things will not make you a scholar in their eyes, or anyone else’s, but it does show a great deal of respect, even with its minimal amount of effort.

That’s all you need. Learn how to greet someone and say thank you in fourteen different languages and cultures. You will still be able to communicate almost anything with them and that is certainly some measure of fluency.

For the over-achievers, and you know who you are, the next thing to learn is how to say, “I don’t speak (insert language)” in the language you just inserted. It appears that after a good and proper greeting, the person you are speaking to may well fly into a two-minute dissertation, with a rapidity that even a fluent speaker would have a problem with, and somehow defies your ability to interrupt them. You will stand, smiling and nodding graciously, before you can use the only other word you know, smile, and slink away with no understanding of what they said. Feeling like it is your fault they immediately thought you spoke their language.

So that is it. Get out there and see the world. Language differences will not be an issue. You might want to learn the metric system though.

6 Responses to “Fluent in 14 Languages”
  1. Thoroughly enjoyable read! I’d give it a “loved” rating if there were one!

    • Brad Osborne says:

      There is a rating system of stars at the end. Feel free to use it. It helps provide me a better idea of how much someone liked an entry. Thanks for reading!

  2. edward dougherty says:

    Very sage advice I would however add an additional piece to anyone’s language skill and that would be to learn to count to 10 at least it is very helpful especially during any negotiation.

  3. The metric system? 😂 what the hell is that !!!

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