Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Language hunger and interaction barriers

"A language barrier exists." This is what you read on CouchSurfing if you are browsing a profile, where the person in question has no languages in common with what you have given out on your profile, or they have stated that their language knowledge of some specific language is only at beginner level. Many times people tend to underestimate their language knowledge and even though somebody doesn't speak another language that well, it is very much possible to interact with each other. For instance last summer, when I was traveling in the Balkans. I did a rafting tour in Herzegovina and both the family that were also on the same tour with us AND the guides (well, at least they pretended) didn't really speak English. Nevertheless we managed fairly well, and had a great time! Body language and signs are very similar, at least withing Europe.

Hitko Rafing in Konjic, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Sometimes it can be scary or even dangerous not to know the language of the country you go to. I was in Hungary a few weeks ago and in Budapest I had an accident. Some amazing person had called me an ambulance and on the way to the hospital I woke up - in the ambulance. The ambulance crew didn't speak English at all, which was very scary, because I had now idea what had happened and where I was. Luckily the ER doctor spoke English and the CouchSurfer, who I was supposed to stay with, came to the hospital and did the interpreting. What a lifesaver!

I was brought up bilingually. I was born and raised in Sweden, which naturally gave me the Swedish language, and my mother is from Finland, so we spoke Finnish at home. So basically I got two languages practically for free. I think growing up with two languages has given me the ability to aquire other language more easily. There are many studies about bilingualism and many of them show that being bilingual helps your brain in many ways, for example in multitasking. Well, at the moment in addition to my native knowledge of Finnish and Swedish, I also speak fluent German and English. But understanding a language isn't just about knowing what the words mean. It is just as much about knowing about and understanding the culture. That can not be aquired unless you actually live in a country for an amount of time. Native knowledge of a language cannot be aquired in class.

My hunger for languages is endless. Everytime I travel to a country, where I don't speak the language, I get the need to learn that language. I want to know more about a culture, and there is no better way to do that than learning the language, and vice versa. I am also very fast at getting the hang of the structure and basics of a language. Last summer and this summer I've spent altogether about two weeks in Italy, and already in that short time I was able to aquire a knowledge that made it possible for me to interact on a basic level with native Italians. Well, at least if they speak fairly slow... A few months or a year in Italy, and I'd be speaking the language pretty well. But this happens in every country I go to. I try to learn some basic things, and once I get back home, I have this endless hunger to learn more.

Last summer I was CouchSurfing in Hungary and I stayed with this lovely couple in a small city called Eger. In their home they had notes all over the furniture, where you could read the name of the piece of furniture in question in many different languages. I thought this was a genious idea! For what better way is there to learn new words than seeing them on regular basis. In this way you learn them almost automatically. At the moment I am trying to learn some more Italian, and I've done the thing with notes in my home as well. Thanks for the idea to P and J!

Charming Eger in Hungary.
Knowing the language of the country you're visiting, makes you so much richer. Everyone is always saying that in Paris the people are so rude, unfriendly and don't want to speak English at all. This is not how I experienced it, even though I barely speak any French and had to speak English. But maybe the French noticed how hard I tried to speak French and not English, that they actually liked me. I thought Paris was a very friendly and nice place!

During my travels and studies I have learned a bit of many languages. Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Serbian and Croatian, Greek, Arabic, Japanese... The list will surely keep growing, but I hope that some of these beginner level languages will develop into a deeper level of knowledge, because that will help understanding the culture as well, and what's more important? At least if you find yourself in an ambulance with no means of understanding what is being said to you.

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