Hola. Como esta? There is the majority of my Spanish. Oh, and I can ask where the bathroom is. I confuse beer and napkin… and a lot of other words. In Icelandic I can say bread and egg and waterfall and… yeah, I’ve already forgotten the rest.
It’s a lonely, self-inflicted, culturally-accepted shame I have. It embarrasses me when my sister beautifully tells me something in Spanish, and it isolated me in Iceland as I sat at a table surrounded by wonderfully interesting people but unable to join the conversation.
In Iceland I was at a party and mindlessly wandering around (parties aren’t my jam) when I walked up to a lady I had been helping (who had a British accent due to marrying a Brit). She was chatting with this man about something or other and suddenly I blurted out, “You’re speaking English!” The man gaped at me and exclaimed, “You’re American!”
Why of course I am, dimwit, who else would be excited about such an ugly, confusing language like English? The man was not the type of person I would commonly associate with, but I found myself strangely drawn to him and he to me because of this common shame we shared.
The citizens of Patro were blissfully unaware that the two Midwestern Americans chatting together were actually tending to their self-inflicted wounds of monolingualism together.
The beautiful, intelligent, fiery people of Iceland are taught English starting very early in their education. They then pick up another language, as well — is it Polish? They are incredibly multilingual. I had no problem communicating with them while there.
The fascinating thing I have found about speaking in another language, however, is there is a thin barrier in front of the person who is translating from their mother tongue into whatever other language. There seems to be an emotional disconnect while communicating. It’s as if it is lost in translation. Literally. It was fascinating to watch my co-worker from Romania speak in English to our Icelandic boss. Double whammy. Or when I was in a hot tub chatting in Spanish with an Italian in a Speedo. Double awkward.
It’s hard enough to communicate in one’s mother tongue. Then add instantaneous translation? Phew.
But do you know what’s harder? Sitting on a couch at yet another party and only being able to understand the Taylor Swift music video on the television.
What do you call it when a person speaks three languages? Trilingual.
Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American.
Okay, you wonderful fellow travelers, how does monolingualism (whether it’s you or someone else) affect you during your adventures? Sound off in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.