My enthusiasm for foreign languages far exceeds any talent I have for them, but I always try to arrive at a new place with at least a running jump at the language. When planning a trip I lay in language books, though most of them I do not look at, and learn most of what I will use from a Berlitz phrasebook, which turns out to have the basic forms that I need to get around as a traveler. Beyond that, I learn from studying newspaper headlines and signs in shop windows and listening to people around me after I get there.
This informal approach can, of course, have amusing results, as when in Zürich a friend, noticing that I was able to order breakfast in German, asked me to negotiate on his behalf with a streetwalker. It turned out that a word that I had picked up from conversation did not mean exactly what I thought it did and hilarity ensued. At least I thought it was hilarious; he did not think so. A word that I thought meant “horsing around” turned out to mean “violence”, which I had told her my friend was looking for. But I guess that’s how one learns a language.
I have never cared about being fluent in a language, but have always been content to know enough to be able to travel on my own. This requires a fairly small vocabulary -- a few hundred words, at most -- and a handful of constructions. “Please” “Thank you” “What is it called?” “Where is the . . .” “I am . . .” “What time . . . arrives, departs . . .” “What does it cost?” “I need a room.” Not much more than that and the basic numbers and days of the week and I seem to be able to get around. You’ll need more if you intend to strike up a social relation, but this will give you a foot in the door.
I have, of course, been in awe of the great travelers who seem to be at home in whatever exotic language they encounter. Richard Francis Burton, the disorderly Victorian explorer, was said to speak twenty-nine languages (thirty, he said, when you count pornography) and he has left us with a description of how he did it:
“My system of learning a language in two months was purely my own invention, and thoroughly suited myself.
“I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day. I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness. After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy bookwork and underlined every word that I wished to recollect . . .. Having finished my volume, I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me. The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid.
“If I came across a new sound, like the Arabic Ghayn, I trained my tongue to it by repeating it so many thousand times a day. When I read, I invariably read out loud, so that the ear might aid memory. . . . whenever I conversed with anybody in a language that I was learning, I took the trouble to repeat their words inaudibly after them, and so to learn the trick of pronunciation and emphasis.”
Burton’s method appeals to me, as most of it is something that can be done before I reach the country.
In the square in Chichicastenango the most beautiful woman I had seen in all Central America passed by and smiled and said something to me. I have absolutely no idea what she said. We mustn’t let that sort of thing happen, must we?