They Speak My Language!

| November 8, 2015

I have always prided myself on my use of foreign languages whenever possible. I made a career out of language use. My foreign language abilities range from fluency to travel-capable in a respectable number of languages. Truly, I Love Language.

But an overheard conversation this week, in conjunction with comments made by my husband in August, made me sit back and think about how the use of foreign language influences my travel experiences, positively and negatively.

One morning last week, I passed two Spanish speakers as I was leaving the grounds of the International School that my daughter attends. To hear many languages spoken at the school is a daily occurrence, and something I love about having Sequoia enrolled there. As I passed, I understood every word of their conversation, with ease. There was no effort involved. We traveled to Spain in August and I’ve started using Spanish in written translation lately, so the rust has been flaking off of my former fluency. Spanish is my second language, acquired early enough that my pronunciation does not scream “AMERICAN! AMERICAN!” and the language is firmly set–I just have to dust it off every now and then.

First visit to Spain, 1992

First visit to Spain, 1992

In August, as my husband and I sat in a little Barceloneta bar, he watched me laugh and joke with the waiter. Paul then informed me of the difference between watching me communicate in Spanish, and watching me communicate in German: with Spanish, it looks like I am having fun; with German, it looks like work. And it is work.

“…the difference between watching me communicate in Spanish, and watching me communicate in German: with Spanish, it looks like I am having fun; with German, it looks like work.”

When I speak German, I can’t even tell you what kind of cacophony is going on in my brain. I have to make a conscious effort to use (misuse) der, die, das–which affect use of dem, den, and all sorts of modifications that I can not – and will not ever – get straight. It’s a nightmare every day in my head.

There’s an ecard that pops up in social media periodically:



It’s so freaking true. When I come home from a meeting that has taken place for two hours in German, I am kaput. My brain is exhausted.  And terrified.

But this isn’t just about German. It’s about language and travel.

ireland gap of dunloe

We returned last weekend from visiting Ireland. #ireRT2015 was one of my favorite trips in a very long time. Granted, it’s hard for anyone not to love Ireland and Northern Ireland: the terrain is breathtaking, and the people are warm and open. But it’s more than that. In Ireland, they speak English. It’s Irish English, which every now and then sounds like it comes from another planet, but it’s English.

English feels like home.

I hadn’t really given this much thought before Ireland. When I travel, it is usually for the adventure–succumbing to the wanderlust that so many of us feel. In that regard, being surrounded by foreign sounds and sights can be exhilarating. As a linguist, more so; it is so much fun to play with the words around me.

But it’s never 100% relaxing. I’m feeling internal stress as I try to communicate; I feel stress if I don’t understand as much as I think I should, and I feel guilty if someone speaks English but I don’t speak their language. I have to work at understanding, and being understood. Working is the antithesis of relaxing.


egypt pyramids camels kari


When I travel, I am almost always in places where the language does not seem too terribly foreign. Not only where I speak the language, like Spain or Egypt or Austria, but places where languages are related to those I know, like Italy or the Netherlands–places where I can manipulate words to comprehend them. When I treat unknown words phonetically, with no regard for orthography, then I can follow typical sound changes to find the meaning.

But am I truly comfortable in those environments? Apparently not. There is a spectrum of comfort–one which changes depending upon current language usage and amount of overall exposure to a language. It is a very different experience to walk around a place where the words on signs look nothing like anything I can read, and the sounds around me are truly foreign. When I can’t even pull a root out of some of the words being used.  Like Finland. The Czech Republic.  Hungary.  Croatia.

No.  No, I am not.

I’m no English-only snob, but apparently I am now an English-craving expat.  I by no means think that English is superior to other languages. Standard American English is my native language, and nothing more. It is one language among thousands. English is the language I use when speaking with English speakers, and my default language when all else fails.  That’s it.

But it is mine.

I am beginning to understand why some people simply do not travel to places where they do not understand the language. While it would never stop me, I am starting to recognize the role that language comfort levels play in one’s ability to relax.

My daughter said something relevant later in the week, in the car on her way to school. She mentioned that she really prefers learning in English. She said she is more comfortable.

Me, too, Sequoia.  Me, too.


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Category: In Germany A Broad blog, Linguistics, Travel, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Kari Martindale is a writer and ESL instructor. She’s visited all 50 states and 37 countries, including many of the big cities of Europe and a ton of Christmas Markets. She spends her days straddling the fence between a sense of adventure and a sense of dread. She is married to what is clearly a patient man and has a daughter who, frustratingly, is just like her. Her academic and professional backgrounds are in linguistics and foreign languages. When she's not teaching ESL, she's writing. When she's not writing, she's thinking about her next trip.

Comments (2)

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  1. Carrie says:

    I actually laughed out loud at the Facebook ecard you posted! My husband and I lived in French-speaking Switzerland for a year before abruptly moving to Germany. You perfectly summed up how we feel about language and how it’s connected to our travel adventures and comfort level. French had just started seeping in when we moved, and I still feel a weird sense of discomfort just upon even hearing German. I haven’t even begun to try to learn it yet. Seriously, how can anyone say words like Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften?! I’m hoping, assuming, we’ll become more comfortable with the language. Has it gotten easier for you?

    • Hi–thanks for reading! It has gotten easier. It can be mentally taxing to hold on a conversation, but I can do it. You’ll get more comfortable. If you’re not yourself working (a lot of readers are expat dependents who are not, is why I bring it up), you can check out your local Volkshochschule for classes. If you have children, they might offer “housewives” classes that teach really relevant stuff. I had a hard time thinking of myself as a Hausfrau, but it was incredibly helpful. A while back, I wrote this: