Sunday, November 15, 2009


In major cities, it’s easy to get by with English.  Too easy.  Speaking foreign languages is one of the joys of travel.  Too many English-speaking tourists turn up in Venice or Paris and speak English.  You can't.  That's cheating.  Aussies are as guilty of this as Americans or the Brits.  You’ve got to make an effort.

But the effort does become draining, and the language barrier is isolating.  Spaniards are reticent to speak anything other than Spanish, and in provincial Andalucía you won’t get much else.  Luckily, my basis in French gets me by with Spanish, and it is probably my favourite language to try to speak.

In Bruges, English is so widely spoken it could be considered a second language after their Flemish Dutch (the national language of French is equally well-spoken, though pride is at stake due to wars with France).

Portugal and England share the oldest alliance in history, and English is widespread in urban areas of Portugal.  It is sporadic in rural areas.  The elderly, urban or rural, don't speak it at all.

My biggest surprise was Croatia, which easily has the most widespread English of all the countries I toured.  It is taught to children in school from young, and the standard is high.  This was a bit of a relief, because I have no knowledge of any Slavic language.  I was out of luck when I found that just over the border in Montenegro, English is not spoken at all, and I had to depend on my Croatian phrase book (for sensitive cultural and political reasons, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian are all officially different languages, but linguistically they are close dialects of the same language).

When I reached France, it was with a mixture of comfort and trepidation.  I actually speak a little bit of French, so I could have simple conversations.  But I also know enough grammar to know I’m getting my conjugation wrong or that I don’t know which participle to use.


poetinahat said...

I love your concluding observation on speaking French: knowing more than a little means doubting. The implication is that knowing very little allows a comfortable assurance (petit arrogance, maybe?).

I remember visiting Budapest years ago and being keen to test my 1 1/2 years of high-school Russian - chancing it a little with an Israeli matron on the airplane, and again in a record shop. Interestingly, I was told that all Hungarians could speak Russian, but strove not to (this was spring of 1982, before the Wall came down, so no surprise there). They were kind to tolerate my trying, though.

I need to read you more - good to see you again, in this internettish way!

poetinahat said...

P.S. I'm going to put a link to your blog from mine. Please advise if you object.

G. Wayne Meaney said...

Cheers, Rob.

Thanks for your comments. I like the theme, and plan to develop this blog entry into something more substantial.

Budapest is a really interesting destination. Hungarian, an orphan language with no family but a distant cousin in Finnish, is considered the world's most difficult language to learn. But what is really intriguing is that it's also considered the language of creative expression because of the flexibility of the word order. The literature doesn't translate well, which deprivation lends the Hungarian intellect a kind of mystery.

Link away to my blog. Of course I don't object. I'm delighted.