I am a language snob.
I believe that when you go to another country you should learn the (or one of the) language(s) spoken there. Especially if you are staying longer than a few weeks.
So now I am in trouble because I started our trip not speaking a single word of Thai.
How did this happen? And how does it affect me?

Let me give you some insights into growing up multilingual, the effects of exhaustion on language skills and navigating life without speaking the language spoken around you.

1. Growing up multilingual.
I come from a multicultural and multilingual family. My dad grew up in Iraq, my mother in Belgium, I was born in Germany and our family language was German. Yet I grew up in many different countries. I was singing songs in Indonesian as a two-year-old. In Egypt, I ironically attended English and German pre-schools, instead of in my father’s native language Arabic. And in the Ukraine, my brother and I would speak Russian to each other as much as German. As my older brothers both moved to the USA I spent all my summers there and lived in the US several years myself.
As a Migrant, there is always the issue of fitting in. From early childhood on I learned to adapt to the language(s) spoken around me, I learned to mimic the way of talking so well, that people often mistook me for a native speaker.
As a traveler, I always believed it is a matter of respect to learn the language so you can actually interact with the people. So with Spanish and Arabic, I took some classes before my travels and being an immersive learner, I was quickly able to engage in basic communications, and understand what’s going on around me.
My wife Joanna also grew up in a multilingual household in Berlin, speaking Polish and German. Early on in our relationship, we traveled to California together, and she got to know me as an English Speaker as well. English quickly became an equal language in our relationship, with all kinds of educational and entertaining input and our conversations around them being in English until now.
I love that being multilingual gives me access to different ways of thinking and communicating.

2. Life with kids. Raising multilingual children.
When I was pregnant with our first child, I was hosting an event, where I did simultaneous translation for the English Speaker into German.While I used to do that effortlessly, my mind simply checked out after every second sentence. And I realized, being pregnant I have no capacity for this! The audience was understanding and jumped in with translation. But that was my first experience of how hormones and tiredness can mess with my language skills.

For Joanna and me it was clear from the beginning that we would raise our Kids multi-lingually. For the first two years we consistently spoke only Polish (Joanna) and only English (me) to our child, and German as a couple. Since Age 1 Eliasz has attended a German-English daycare. By the time Milosz was born, Joanna and I started to speak German alongside Polish/English. More details as to how and why are probably worth another Post. For now, let’s just say that we love the beauty and chaos of our multilingual family. But again exhaustion has its effects. And raising two kids only two years apart was really exhausting for the first two years. One of the language effects, for example, was that I was no longer capable of automatically translating every German book into English while reading, and often times replied in the language spoken to me by my kids, rather than in English.
So learning other languages before starting a world trip was not even an option.

3. Travelling without native language skills.
So here we are, travellers who expect everything to work out in English.
Problem is, that in the past two weeks besides our host, no one actually speaks English here. So far we have learned two phrases in Thai: Hello and Thank You. Our kids gain huge smiles because they happily greet everyone they pass. For me, this is the first time of being in a place and not speaking the language, or not having family members translating for me. It is strange, and at times overwhelming. There are two strategies that currently help me out:

  • speak anyways
  • use your phone to translate

In the past when interacting with people whose language I didn’t speak I would become mute. Sure I would gesticulate and smile, but I would not voice any words because I didn’t see the point. I got irritated if others talked to me when they knew I didn’t understand a word of it.
I have grown since then and learned to absolutely value verbal interaction, even in the lack of a common language. For me it has become a matter of valuing the other as a person worth talking to, expressing a desire for interaction, and a way to still be myself and not silenced.
So I speak anyways. I use my voice, supported by gestures to express myself, my gratitude, my questions, my goodbyes. I mix in my two Thai phrases whenever possible and appropriate, to show my respect for the language.
When needing something specific, I use my phone to translate. I have the free google translate app installed and use it mostly in stores or the pharmacy to ask for particular items. It has been very useful, so I absolutely recommend it.

It will be interesting for me to see how our languages develop as a travelling family. I am noticing that a lack of language skills makes me hesitant to travel to certain regions, yet I don’t think that should really stop us. On the other hand, I could imagine all of us speaking Spanish when travelling South America.

If you have any questions about growing up multilingual or raising your own kids with more than one language let me know.

But now I would love to hear from you. How do you experience not speaking the language of the country you are in? Do you have practical tips? How does it affect you emotionally?

Let me know in the comments or send me an Email.