Tom spent a summer in Brasil when he was in high school. Early in his trip, he got lost in Rio de Janeiro. The only thing he knew how to say in Portuguese was "You stupid monkey, you're disgusting" (the result of so many of our Brasilian visitors having fun teaching bad expressions to little kids!) Not exactly conducive to getting locals to help you find your way home! Fortunately he was able to get a taxi which took him back to where he was staying again. You don't appreciate until you get to another country the value of learning to speak the language!
As I get ready to leave for Paris, I am appreciating (again) the difficulty of all of our foreign guests, and what a struggle it was for them to communicate in English. I had grand plans for this trip, taking some classes and brushing up my French. Of course I didn't do it.
I was a French major when I went to UC Berkeley. I had two years of French in high school and loved it...and I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. Mrs. Gavin ran a French immersion kind of class and we rarely were permitted to speak English in her class, so I quickly got into the ability to carry on a conversation. My friend Anne was also pretty good in French and when we had our nightly telephone conversations, we spoke in French so our parents wouldn't know what we were talking about.
I took a class in French pronunciation at when I went to Berkeley. It was the semester when I stopped attending class entirely and I failed almost every course, but I got a B+ in French pronunciation because they based my grade on the recording I'd made at the start of class. But I am sorely aware that I don't "speak French." I haven't taken a class since 1961 and haven't spoken French since about 1982 (when we had a French speaking guy from Congo living with us).
There's a weird thing about how my brain works--and perhaps how anybody's brain works. When we had Brasilians here, I kind of learned Portuguese by osmosis. I'd practice thinking in Portuguese when I was alone in the car and my brain seemed to click over into "foreign language mode" because when I was stuck for a word in Portuguese, the word that popped into my head was not English, but French.
I am fluent in French...in my head. I can have long conversations with myself. I can even think in French. But there's a HUGE difference from being fluent with yourself in the safety of your own head and opening your mouth and trying to communicate with someone who is a native speaker. It may be even worse if you are able to express yourself clearly, because people think you can speak the language better than you can and the response comes so rapid fire there's no way you can decipher what is being said! I remember the Brasilians who were exhausted at the end of each day just from listening to English.
When we had non-English speaking people living with us, I developed a manner of speaking that allowed me to communicate more effectively. I slowed my speech and used very simple words, yet it still sounded like normal conversation, so it didn't embarrass anybody and encouraged them to respond. It got to be so intuitive that I sometimes had to stop myself from speaking that way with the family. But the average person you meet in another country isn't going to speak to you that way.
Yet, I feel it's important that if you travel to another country you at least make an effort to speak the language. How self-centered we Americans often are to expect anybody who comes to this country to speak the language...but also expect that people in foreign countries should be able to speak English for us as well. UglyAmericans indeed!
We spent one day in Paris on one of our trips to England, when we took the Chunnel over with a couple of friends and spent the day (my claim to fame--accidentally walking down to the street level from the mid-level of the Eiffel Tower; ask my friend Sian about that! It's a LOT longer walk than it looks!). I think that the sum total of my interaction with French-speaking people was asking someone in a bakery how much a piece of lemon quiche was. I handled "combien?" quite well!
But I'm going to have to do a lot more speaking for the 8 days we are in France. I haven't even thought about Italy. Non parlo italiano! (I did, however, grow up in the Italian-speaking part of San Francisco and am marginally comfortable with two romance languages, so perhaps I can stumble through, with the help of a book or something.)
I didn't do the preparation I should have done for the trip. One of my problems in learning several things is that I teach myself how to do stuff and then I can't take a class. At one point when Walt and I were first married, I wanted to learn Shorthand. My mother could write shorthand and I thought it was really cool. So I bought a book and practiced and pretty soon I could write in simple shorthand (and sometimes I could even read what I had written, which was even better!). I liked it so much I decided to take a class in night school, but everybody in the class was a beginner and I obviously already "knew stuff," so the teacher said I needed to go to the intermediate class. But students in the intermediate class had actually studied shorthand, had taken dictation tests, etc. I was hopelessly lost and dropped out after the first couple of days.
It's the same with trying to find a Photoshop class. There is no way I would enroll in beginning PhotoShop because I've been using it for years and I don't need to learn how layers work, for example. But if you get into a more advanced class, you come up with people who worked their way up from the beginning classes and know so much more than you do.
(What they need are intermediate classes for sorta smart people who know some stuff but have never taken a class and want to know more. Or a tutor!)
That was the problem I ran into with on-line French classes. Either I had to start out with the very basics, or I was getting into conversation that was waaay too advanced for me! So I've just been spending a lot of time "thinking" in French, finding French phrase guides to download to my iTouch, and hoping that when I need them, those rusty wheels that worked so well back in the 1950s will start greasing themselves again.