Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I feel like such a cad

I was getting on a bus at a decent sized bus depot yesterday in My City. I think I must have been the last person in line. As I'm boarding, a blind man bumps into me.

"Qerdf  spet linwer elst?" he asks. I don't speak the local language, so that's about what it sounds like to me.

I struggle to figure out how much I owe the driver for my ticket, and the gentleman keeps repeating the question to my back. After the third repetition, I gather that he is asking me what bus this is, but I don't know enough numbers to tell him.

I slink off to find a seat, and the bus driver gives him the information he wants. I am so ashamed of myself.

Conference City 2, where we were a few months ago, speaks the same language, and I had a similar experience. Epsilon wanted his own seat on the subway, so he was sitting next to me. An older woman came by and said

"Wer inetr skdong alking lsets. Gtin  klnigs eknoge."

By the time she'd repeated herself 2-3 times, I figured out that she was asking if she could sit in one of our spots, but the woman and daughter sitting across from me got up to let her sit. We rode on, facing each other in awkward silence, until she had the grace to try to talk to Epsilon. At this point it becomes clear that we share limited words in each other's languages and a few smiles break out. I wish her good day at my stop and head back to my hotel, wanting to hide from my shame under the piles of pillows they provide.

I clearly need a better solution to my linguistic difficulties. I'm taking suggestions.


  1. One of the first phrases I try to learn when I visit a place is "I'm sorry, I don't speak blah." Add "I am visiting from XXX".

    At least that way I have acknowledged that the other person tries to communicate with me, and not just seemed like a rude person... and (embarrassingly) so MANY people have a little English which they will try out once I have said my phrase.

  2. Many people in european countries do understand little english even if they don't speak regularly. One thing you can learn in local language is that you don't speak the language, otherwise you can also try to say it in english. The chance is that someone in the bus will understand and can explain to the person who is trying to talk. I used this startegy when I was new in Germany until I could say "Bitte, ich sprehan nichst doitch".

  3. You are both right about the amount of English spoken abroad. It's an embarrassing amount, and it certainly has made my life easier as I've travelled. My problem seems to be that when I am frazzled (looking after a cranky toddler, or trying to figure out bus fare in a foreign language) I don't react as quickly as is useful, which then leads to the awkward moments I wrote about. When I'm not frazzled, I've learned to soften my American accent, speak slowly, and use sign language. I should prioritize learning "I don't speak X", and train myself to react quickly. Thanks.

  4. I found that it also helps just to say something polite in your own language (or any language you are comfortable with), because people immediately get it that you don't speak their language, and you are still perceived to be polite. In simple cases (like "can I borrow this chair" at a restaurant), people get the meaning from the accompanying gesture, and it is less awkward for both sides than struggling with the three foreign words one knows.