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.