The Communication Complication

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What is something you wish you knew how to do?”.

Whenever I happen upon somebody that can speak more than one language, I tend to regard it as the most wonderful parlour trick, and cannot quite fathom how they do it. I wish I could do it too, but the extent of my ability only extends as far as useful sentences such as “I am 12 years old”, “My name is Jonathan”, and “I have a black dog” in French.

I was always terrible at languages at school.

I would like to blame being elevated into the advanced French class at school when I was twelve years old for my lack of ability. We all learned French at school – I’m not sure if kids still do – if you were good enough at it, you learned German too. I never learned German. I had no place in the advanced French class. Sure, I could work hard at it and do well in tests, but I couldn’t string a useful sentence together. It didn’t come easily to me.

While working in Germany a couple of years ago I was invited to visit a co-worker and his family for the evening. He and his partner were from Romania. So they were in Germany, already speaking one foreign language, and inviting me over for dinner, and speaking another with me. They invited another co-worker from Holland. I gazed in wonder all night at their linguistic gymnastics.

They described switching languages like changing radio channels in your head. There was no conscious translation as such – you just switch from one to the other.

My brain doesn’t appear to work like that. I think I got the basic model. It’s very good at doing simple tasks, one after another, and that’s about it.

That being said, while working as a software and web developer I have learned all manner of computer languages – everything from Visual Basic, to Pascal, HTML, Javascript, C, C++, C#, Python, SQL, Perl, PHP, Ruby, and probably quite a few I can’t recall right now. Here’s the thing though – if I try to switch languages mid-conversation, I make huge mistakes. Most developers do. Thankfully modern computers catch those mistakes – although they never give a sensible reason for your idiocy not quite working as intended.


There’s my answer for today’s writing prompt – I wish I could speak multiple languages. I have no practical purpose for it, but I admire those that can do it tremendously.

16 replies on “The Communication Complication”

Oh, I’ve seen Duolingo. I have a friend in Russia and tried to learn a few words to amuse them one day (we usually rely on Google Translate). Let’s just say my skills haven’t improved lol

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I can understand multiple languages and that comes from hearing so many different languages growing up and living in a multicultural city. While English is supposed to be my native language there are times when I think otherwise. I had one semester of Latin, 2 years of Spanish in high school. One semester of German, one of Italian and two semesters of Babylonian (Akkadian) in college. I have a basic understanding of all those languages plus French but can’t speak them. Oh yeah, I understand a little Farsi and a little Korean. I can curse in Greek. My problem with foreign languages is – they are foreign! I’m good with vocabulary and pronunciation, the grammar eludes me. I can’t conjugate a verb to save my life (not even in English.)

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I think we each have a gift and we have to work hard at those parts that aren’t so gifted. I am not mechanically minded at all. Putting together something harder than a puzzle puts me in a tizzy and yet, I can say I’m fluent in 2 languages (English/Spanish)and can get by in 2 more (Portuguese and French). So we each have our superpower and yours is in a. different linguistic way!

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I’m a miserable failure at all languages that are not English. I took Latin in High School, French in College, and Latin again in graduate school. I was horrible at all of them. When I find myself in a situation like you describe, I am always SO IMPRESSED by people sliding comfortably between languages.

Years ago I worked at the front desk of a big 1,000+ room hotel in San Francisco. We had a couple of clerks who were multilingual…a couple spoke Japanese and English, which was handy because we had a lot of Japanese tourists. We had a woman from France, and of course she spoke English as well. I liked to teach her little American phrases like ‘catch a clue’, fun to hear in a heavy French accent. We had a woman from Germany, and she spoke French, English, and German fluently, plus some Spanish and maybe Italian. Amazing. More amazing to me were the couple of Americans who were multi-lingual like this. I feel that Europeans are much better at educating their children in other languages, but Americans are pretty dismal at it. There were two American coworkers who spoke quite a few languages…one was my roommate, who could speak English, French, Spanish, German, some Japanese, some Portuguese, and some Arabic. The other spoke all of those except Japanese and Arabic, and I think she spoke Italian. Sometimes we would have a very busy day with a long line of people checking in, and if these two were both working, as people got closer to the front of the line and heard them seamlessly go from one language to the next, it was fun to see their faces register the beauty of it all. No such luck if I was their clerk. Just English. Sigh.

Skills I would love to have, but not enough to put effort in to make it happen, are: at least one other language, probably French (though I live in California, so Spanish would be much more practical); play piano beautifully; and paint with oil paints. I’ve never even tried with piano and painting, I just feel like an incredible amount of work goes in to doing it well, and we have no place to put a piano, and the paints would make a mess, etc. Lots of excuses to not do things you truly aren’t motivated to do, right?

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I have a funny story about language – many years ago – before children – we went to Paris for a weekend. I booked us a table at a vegetarian restaurant (my other half is veggie), and was nervous about walking in and talking to the staff. I walked in, the girl greeting customers took one look at me, and said “would you like the English menu?” lol

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Speaking, or rather in your case writing in several computer languages is also a highly valued skill. You’re right about languages being like radio stations, good analogy. However sometimes I make mistakes and will slip out a word in Spanish when trying to speak Italian for example. Notice I said, trying.

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That’s a good one. I speak 4 languages fluently and understand 2 more quite well. The most important while learning a new language is practice. Listening to it being spoken but also, not being afraid to make mistakes when speaking it yourself.
And, when you are speaking different languages at the same time, it does indeed not take as much effort is people might think.
The languages you know (programing languages) are wayyyyy more complicated than any other one I know. xx


I am completely HORRIBLE at learning languages! I have tried many so I can basically just say “hi, how are you?” In a handful and thats it


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