One thing that’s very different about being abroad compared to being in the U.S. is that everyone speaks English. This fluency is not restricted to heads of state or academics but to average people on the street — cabbies, bartenders, even the crazy lady on the subway in Berlin was bilingual. She came up to me and said, “Entschuldigen sie mich, haben sie irgendwelche Änderungen… wait, you’re from states? Forgive me, could you possibly spare some change? I am not at all well.”
People are generally fine with speaking English to you, as it avoids having to hear you mangle their language like a college football player speaking to the press. I try to at least learn the words for “hello,” “thank you,” and “please,” along with any phrases I might frequently use such as “more wine?” and “sure, I’ll have another glass.” The effort is usually appreciated. I did have a cab driver in Prague who claimed to not understand how my friend Brendan, who has lived there for a year, pronounced the name of his own street, but after the meter had run for another minute, it suddenly registered.
Often, when you take an English-speaking tour in another country, the guides are British or U.S. ex-pats. In Lisbon, the guides were Portugese and the two I had spoke impeccable English. They had the idioms and jokes down and everything. I started to question my own English: “Was that the right word? I know it doesn’t sound as good without an accent.” One of the guides mentioned to me that English is taught in primary school and they get 12 years of it. They also watch subtitled U.S. programs to reinforce it. Unfortunately, seeing “Run, Lola, Run” aided neither my fitness nor my German proficiency.
If I didn’t feel stupid enough, at one point I complimented the guide on her knowledge of local history. She thanked me but politely brushed it off as just being a result of growing up in the area. Can you imagine the sorry-ass walking tour some kid from Jersey would give based just on living there? “Yeah, down the street, that’s where someone saw Snooki, and Springsteen played at that bar once… I guess. He’s from here, right? Or is that Dylan? Whichever old guy writes songs about poor people.”
You start to get a complex after a while if you only speak English. That means you’re just one language away from not speaking one at all. It seems reasonable that you should have a “safety language,” which I guess for everyone else is English. I’ve seen Spanish tourists communicate with a German tourist using English and, amazingly, a waitress in Budapest speak Hungarian to one table, German to another, and English to mine. This is a waitress who, based on her age, grew up under communism.
In the states, there’s a lot of English-only pushes from politicians who apparently want the U.S. to be among the least-skilled nations. That’s really the opposite of what we should be doing. I try to imagine what my life would have been like if I had learned another language in my youth. When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember this cool senior sitting in study hall singing Soul II Soul. If I had been able to say, “However do you want me? However do you need me” in Portugese (roughly, “no entanto você quer que eu, no entanto você precisa de mim”), everything might have been different.