It’s raining like Noah’s ark and I’m trying to buy a ticket at the bus stop without getting the contents of my bag soaked. Suddenly a young guy appears at my shoulder and says something in Slovak, something I can’t understand because it’s probably along the lines of this, which I require the internet to provide:
“Nepotrebujem tento lístok, by sa vám to páči?”
By his expression and the fact that he is holding out a ticket, I quickly realise he is offering me his ticket as it has some time left and he doesn’t need it.
“Oh, dakujem!” I reply and take the ticket gratefully, as he nods and smiles.
A moment later, under shelter, I think to myself: He thought I could understand! He thought I could speak Slovak! If there’s one thing I do well it’s picking up the correct pronunciation of foreign words, and I’ve had plenty of practise with this word by now. It means “thank you” and honestly, when you’re a visitor, there is no single word you ever need more.
For a moment I bask in the feeling of passing as a local, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Slovaks as we wait for the bus to the suburbs. Immediately I feel a bit shamefaced at my elation, knowing that it’s such a false pride, that the moment I open my mouth to utter more than three words everyone will know the ugly truth. Poser, I think ruefully.
So much of the appeal of travel is, for me, about languages. It’s part and parcel of the foreign experience, but it also taps into my long-held desire to be multilingual. Growing up in a completely monolingual environment made this seem impossible. People who were proficient in a second language drew my admiration, and those golden-tongued Fluent Speakers I held in awe. I happily learned Japanese at school, and continued with it, lackadaisically, at university, before dropping it because I wasn’t putting in the time. I loved the idea, but didn’t have the self-application. When did I ever need it outside of class?
But these months in Europe have shown me that learning new languages isn’t just for the special few. I arrived in Deutschland with next to no German and three weeks later was able to rattle off “Zwei schwarz tee mit milch und ein gross käsebrot bitte, ja, das links ein.”
Yes, it is German, along with Danish the easiest language for English-speakers to learn. And no, I didn’t learn anything grammatically complicated. But I still felt amazed because it kind of just happened. I was conscious, taking note of words on the street, asking questions of Ian (who knew a tiny bit) and Tessa (our Fluent Speaker host), but it turns out that simply being there makes a huge difference.
Once I left Germany I didn’t think I’d need it again. There I was in French-speaking Switzerland, then a few days in Italy, and in neither place did I have much opportunity or need to learn more than a handful of words.
But then I arrived in Bratislava and was met at the airport by some family members of my hosts. I had been warned that Mr Alex did not speak any English, but Petra spoke a little. She did. But her first question was, “Do you speak German? German is better for me.”
Being able to order a salad still doesn’t count as speaking German, so we conversed very haltingly in English. Mr Alex drove and occasionally spoke to Petra in Slovak. As we neared the apartment he seemed to feel some urgency to explain things properly, even though Petra was doing her best. Suddenly I realised I could understand him a little. My mind did a double-take before I realised it was because he was speaking to me in simple German. I mean, I really was just barely understanding, but for a moment I felt like I was in deep water and had felt a passing branch nudge my hand.
He pulled over beside the apartment block and pointed at a bus station. “Station für stadt,” he said.
“Stadt…” I repeated then it clicked. “Oh! For the city!”
We continued on in this manner as he pointed to bus number “sechs und sechzig”, departing every “zwei minuten”, then took the lift to “fiel stock” and inspected the “kleine küchen”. I was ecstatic at each tiny, childlike moment of comprehension. If nothing else, language learning teaches you humility.
I wasn’t able to pick up much Slovak in the two weeks I was there. It’s one step further away from English than German is, and I spent the first few days just learning how the alphabet is pronounced. That alone fascinated me. The soft ň of “dobrý deň”. The way an ordinary c is pronounced “ts”. The beautiful sound of “nech sa páči”. I finally realised why radio announcers always said Dvorak’s name as though it was spelt “D-vor-zhak” – because that’s actually how you say it. I was delighted by the fact (common to many European languages but an alien concept to the English language) that Slovak pronunciation is exactly how it looks. Two vowels next to each other don’t form a new sound, you just say each vowel in sequence. What a revolution! The name of one of the squares in the city centre seemed impenetrable but as I tried it out on my tongue I realised that if I simply said each letter one after the other it came out perfectly: “Hviezdoslavovo námestie”. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it looks. Words like “vlk” for “wolf” seemed less strange as I applied this rule.
Soon I’ll be landing in Moscow, where the language is even more foreign again. But my experience thus far tells me that I’ll probably be fine (after floundering for a few days) and with any luck, at the end of four weeks, the word for “thank you” will come to me as naturally as if I’m a local.