Language Barriers, or How Do I Ask For An ATM??

I have always been envious of those who can speak other languages than just their “home” tongue.

I took a few years of high-school Spanish, and then a quarter more in college, but when I was younger, I wanted to speak four languages fluently: English, French, Spanish, and German. Then I thought I’d add a few more: Dutch, Italian, Gaelic, and whatever else struck my fancy.

I didn’t know it would be so difficult to learn a language, particularly if you didn’t have ready access to hearing the words spoken correctly. I haven’t had the opportunity to try out programs like Rosetta Stone, but I imagine they must help a great deal. Most of my language practice has been in other countries in which I didn’t spend that much time, overall.

In every country I’ve been to, it has been my experience if you smile a great deal and make attempts to communicate with a human, that human will try to communicate back. Even when it’s hard. Two strong examples of this are when I was in France and Germany.

In France, I was looking for an ATM. That’s simple enough, right? But think about it. HOW do you ask for an ATM? Do you ask for a “bank machine?” A “money maker?” Or what? You can’t just say A-T-M in the home language, because other countries don’t call them that. Now-a-days ATMs are prevalent enough that you can pretty much just ask for a bank…or spot one yourself (they’re everywhere in large cities) and find a cash dispenser.

But 14 years ago on this particular trip, they were much more rare. So, I stopped a gentleman, pointed at a picture of a bank, and helplessly said, “Uh, pardon monsieur, uh, excuse moi, uh….” Finally, he let out a large sigh, and asked, “What do you want to know?!” In English! I was thrilled…and embarrassed. If I’d just had the words….!

In Germany, we were traveling through the Black Forest, and stayed in a beautiful campground. On the premises was a pizza place that had sample pans hanging on the wall, so you could see what size you were ordering, or even just point. But the toppings were all in German (naturally…it WAS Germany, after all!) and though we’d been “in country” for about ten days, I hadn’t seen, let alone mastered food names.

The man behind the counter spoke some English, but he was somewhat limited. I still admired the heck out of him…I wished my German was half as good as his English! Anyway, in trying to decipher what certain words meant, I read “schinken,” aloud. The man nodded. I said, “Is that chicken?” He said, “No, it is not chicken.” But he continued to stare me down, willing me to keep guessing. So next I tried, “Is it ham?” And with much relief, he agreed, “Yes, it is ham.” A simple, maybe silly, exchange in retrospect, but I can assure you I was so grateful he was willing to meet me half way.

Don’t let a lack of language skills prevent you from traveling to a country you long to visit. Particularly in Europe, they are so used to folks coming through that speak different languages, they have many signs (especially traffic) that are pictures, rather than words, anyway. Much more accommodating than our stop signs, for sure.

Of course, there was the time we were driving on the Autobahn in Germany, and suddenly, in the middle of nowhere appeared a sign that simply read “!”  My Travel Buddy, who was driving, said, “What does THAT mean?” I said, “I don’t know, but we have to do it right away!”  New experiences just never get old.

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