Monday, 3 September 2012

Linguistic Dilemmas in Croatia

Aside from an afternoon in Flemish-speaking Belgium, our trip to Croatia was the first time in my life that I visited a country and had no idea whatsoever of how to speak the local language. For the first time in my life, I became one of those tourists who is entirely dependent on other people speaking English.

A few years ago, I would have hated myself. But recently I have come to accept that it is to the practical advantage of people all over the world to have a shared language, even if I fear many of the consequences. And the truth is, people who provide services to tourists in the most tourist-y bits of Dalmatia really do all speak English far better than I could reproduce Croatian, where the nouns not only have three different genders but also 5 or 6 declensions, and that's not even getting on to thinking about verbs, after a few weeks of study.

In the interest of politeness and maintaining a few shreds of integrity, I did learn some useful phrases, such as "Hello" and "Do you speak English?" Using the first felt awkward, though, because it seemed to imply that we might be able to continue the conversation in Croatian, while the second was pretty redundant, given that on the few occasions where the answer was "no", it was immediately obvious.

A couple of times, though, we ventured out of the tourist bubble, and suddenly every word we had learned became critical. One of these was buying fruit at the market, where we got by with a few words and many gestures. The other was when the English-speaking owner of our rented apartment was away and we had to collect the keys from the neighbour, a very kind older lady who spoke not a word of English.

To me this illustrates perfectly the challenge facing wannabe language learners today. You can get by in the easy places doing the easy things with everybody else's basic English, but if you want to get off the beaten track, integrate into local society or do anything at all that involves diplomacy, you need to be fluent in the foreign language. And fluency is harder to attain, because you get fewer chances to practise the basics.

Most people don't seem to care very much. But what do you think, dear readers? Many of you have become fluent in foreign languages and lived in foreign cultures long enough to reap the benefits, but do you bother when you're just going on holiday? Is it worth it to learn a few phrases when you know that eventually you will have to resort to English? Perhaps it depends on the country?

I'll finish with the end of the story about the apartment lady. "Govorite?" she asked, confronted with our blank expressions. "Ne," we responded, shaking our heads. "Engleski?" I tried, "Francuski?", but with no luck. She led us to the door of our flat and let us in in a wordless emptiness. We didn't know what was going on, were worried that we had disturbed her or commited some kind of a faux - pas. It was only as we were making our way up the stairs that she suddenly said, "Italiano?" "Si, si!" I replied, and so did she. Suddenly the void was filled with communication and, to my great delight, for once it wasn't English that saved the day.


  1. I'm totally with you in that I've gotten less hard-line on this issue in recent years, and just this year have travelled to Barcelona, Amsterdam and Norway without studying up on the language. However, I did feel bad, and not only in a "this isn't very courteous of me" way, but also in a "I'm missing out" way. Hopeless and faintly ridiculous as it might have been trying to communicate with Norwegians in their native language, I felt that the perfect English I encountered everywhere made the trip just that bit more bland and generic than it might otherwise have been. I like the feeling of a challenge and being a bit out of my depth, and the closest we got to that was going to a tapas restaurant where the menu was only in Norwegian and Spanish... not exactly a travel adventure to tell the grandkids about.

    I also have to laugh (as I'm sure you do) when people who've been on a jaunt to Paris or Rome assure you that "everyone in Europe speaks English". Okay, they might not be as clueless as we are about Croatian (although I do recognise "govorite", thanks Russian!), but you don't have to go far outside the tourist bubble to meet people who can't speak English in any useful sense.

  2. Gwan, you put it so well! I used to worry about the courteous bit more (that's what living in France does to you!) but now it's definitely more the feeling of missing out that gets to me, and I think it's almost as bad for non-anglophones as it is for us now, because they only need to learn English and not the other languages. I guess you just have to look a bit harder these days for the authentic immersion experience :-(

  3. The only place I went to and didn't speak a word of the language was Thailand. I didn't even try to learn, we were only there for a couple of weeks. I found it really affected the way I dealt with people though... even with my bad Portuguese in Brazil, I had better interactions with people!

  4. Zhu, that's so interesting! Would you say it's true that the interactions are better even with people who speak good English?

  5. I guess I've had "easy" countries: Spain, Italy, Austria. For Italy, I was there 2 weeks on my own the first time and learned a few key phrases. I guess I feel kind of an obligation to show that I'm making an effort in the local language before reverting to English. I think the rise of English across Europe/the world has led to a lot more situations where people think "Meh, I don't need to learn the language; everyone speaks English!" when of course it's rarely the case. Just today I had 2 German students at the University tell me they really needed to get a spot in the courses taught in English because they didn't speak any French. I didn't but really wanted to ask "If you don't speak any French, why did you come to France for a semester?"

  6. L, I've bee intrigued to see situations like the one you described a few times too. I don't know whether to be sad that this kind of thinking is spreading or relieved that we anglophones aren't the only ones missing out! It surprises me that they were German though - I always thought Germany was one of the countries that managed to teach English really well in its schools but not neglect other languages, such as French and Spanish, either, but maybe I was wrong.