Dealing with “All Those Languages”

April 23, 2023

The more we travel, and the more countries we travel through, the more we try to learn, both about the culture and the languages. We feel lucky that we grew up in an English-speaking country, since our native language tends to be a second or third language in most other countries. This helps considerably, but doesn’t always save us.

We often get the question from people who approach us about “how do you deal with all of the different languages?” These days, there are definitely shortcuts. The obvious “easy way out” is to just say “We only speak English”, and force the other person to switch to whatever level of English they may know (our local guide on a Douro River tour the other day uttered a line to this effect. He said “Bad English is what keeps Europe together”.) Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t, either because the person actually doesn’t know any English, or because (and rightly so), you’re in their country, dammit, speak their language! Which is always the best approach as far as I’m concerned.

We try to learn the very basics in each country: “Hello”, “Good afternoon” (or evening), “Thank you”, “Where is…”, “toilet”, etc. By the way, of all the words, across all the countries, “toilet” has been the most universal. “Bathroom” or “restroom” is not a term used in most countries; “toilet” either is used, or translates well, or simply has been adopted to address the tourists. In fact, “WC” is also used universally on signage to indicate toilets, even though if you asked for the “water closet”, they often wouldn’t understand.

Recently, going from Morocco, to Spain, to Portugal, in a matter of a week or so, we had the chance to switch between languages quickly. I found myself spitting out words in the wrong language often, but the longer we’re in Portugal, the easier it gets. While many Spanish words sound somewhat similar in Portuguese, the spelling can be completely different. For example “playa” (beach) in Spanish is “praia” in Portugese. Likewise, “buenos dias” (commonly spoken as “buen dia”) becomes “bom dia”. Other words are completely different; “gracias” (which comes out of my mouth faster than any other language), is “obrigado” in Portugal.

Just a few minutes ago, as I was typing this post, there was a knock at the door. I answered it, and there stood two ladies from the quinta’s cleaning crew (fyi, “quinta” means estate; we are staying on a vineyard at the moment in northern Portugal). One of the ladies quickly asked something in Portuguese, to which I responded, “Sorry, I only speak English.”

So the other lady asked in French if we needed the room cleaned (I understand enough French to understand this).

“Non. C’est bon”, I replied.
“Merci”, she said.
“Gracias”, I told her. As I said, I may know “thank you” in several languages, but “gracias” always comes out first.

Which leads me to another “shortcut”.

Several years ago, our daughter Kayla would use the Spanish word “vámonos” (“let’s go”) when telling her young kids to get in the car to go somewhere. At some point, “vámonos” sounded like “Bubba Knows”, and the kids started saying “Bubba Knows” instead.

When I worked with a lot of Japanese nationals, they taught me similar interpretations of some Japanese words, like “see my sand” as a way of learning “sumimasen” (“excuse me”) or “matinee” to remember “mata ne” (“see you later”). Similarly, saying the word for “sky” in Japanese (“ten kyu”) is an easy way for a Japanese speaker to remember “thank you” in English.

For Diana, “obrigado” here in Portugal sounded like “avocado”, and if you say it fast enough, nobody notices the difference.

And then there’s Google Translate. We used it a lot in Vietnam to have complete conversations at the dinner table with locals who knew as much English as we knew Vietnamese, which is to say, zero. I also used it here in Portugal at one point to have a conversation with a woman who spoke fluent Portuguese and French, but no English. It worked very well. Until she told me she also spoke Spanish. Problem solved, put the phone away.

We’ve also used the camera function on Google Translate to read menus and historical signs on buildings and in museums. In most cases, it works very well, with a few exceptions. For example, in Malaga, Spain, Google Translate offered up that one of the desserts on a tapas menu came with a “side of lawyers”.

Here in Portugal, we ate at a small café located above the Mercado de Livramento, a large indoor produce, meat, and seafood market in Setubal. The waitress brought us menus, apologized that they were only in Portuguese, and offered to translate the items to English. Feeling a bit cocky, I told her that wouldn’t be necessary, and I whipped out my phone and opened Google Translate. Which promptly displayed these tasty items:

This is when the photo menu comes in handy.

At which point I swallowed my tiny pride and asked her to tell us what was on the menu. Which she did. And, after reading the menu to us in English, and observing that we were Americans, she took the next logical step in dealing with Americans: she told us that the fish plate was the quickest thing on the menu to prepare, and that we should order that (a lifetime of dealing with typical American tourists that don’t understand the pace of meals in Europe).

Diana just pointed to the fish plate on the menu, and said “Two, please. Avocado.”

One thought on “Dealing with “All Those Languages”

  1. Great post! Gets to the essence of world travel. I think it all can be a lot of fun… until you need to communicate something right now. Avocado.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.