I Think I’ve Reached My Linguistic Limit


By Matt Gross

Matt Gross writes about travel and food for the New York Times, Saveur, and Afar magazine, and about parenting for DadWagon.com. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

Nine months ago, on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Surabaya, Indonesia, I began flipping through Lonely Planet’s Bahasa Indonesia phrasebook, not expecting to learn much of the local language. After all, this was a mere five-hour flight, and I’d had virtually no exposure to Bahasa before. How much could I pick up before we touched down?

As it turned out, more than enough. Arriving in Surabaya without a hotel, I made my way to the office of a travel agent—who didn’t speak much English. Hoping I might find an old converted villa, I somehow put together the right question: “Is there an old house hotel?” I asked.

It wasn’t quite grammatical, but the travel agent understood instantly, and booked me into the gorgeous colonial Hotel Majapahit, which was right around the corner (and surprisingly affordable). On the five-minute walk over, I marveled at my luck, still kind of shocked at my ability to communicate.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have been. For most of my life, I’ve been pretty good at languages. I learned French well enough in high school that I can still, 20 years later, not only get by but be myself in Francophone countries. I studied Italian for a single semester in college, and while I don’t know that language as well as French, I can more than get by all over Italy. Spanish I can read and understand because I live in New York City, where advertisements and Spanish speakers are everywhere; speaking it myself, however, is a chore. Mix all these together, and I can read Portuguese.

It’s not just Romance languages I’ve learned. A year in Ho Chi Minh City gave me some grounding in Vietnamese, and ever since I met my wife, almost 14 years ago, I’ve been learning (albeit slowly) the Mandarin that is the official language of her native Taiwan. In my travels around the world as a writer for the New York Times and other publications, I’ve picked up bits of Turkish, Khmer, Japanese, and Korean, and learned to read the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets.

Now, I hope you won’t take this exhaustive catalog as a boast. Because the fact is, I’m not fluent in any language besides English, and I probably never will be. Actually, in the past year or two, I think I’ve reached my linguistic limit.

That Indonesian I learned a mere nine months ago? All gone but for tida’ apa- apa, a phrase that means “don’t worry” or “never mind.” The Turkish? I can thank you (teşekkür) for the apple (elma) and sit in a chair (sandalye) at a table (masa) to eat it, but I’ve forgotten how to put even the simplest sentence together, let alone figure out how to use the correct case (uh, nominative?). Khmer, which I studied seriously for a month and took great pleasure in speaking—oh, those complicated aspirations!—is vanishing. Soon all I’ll be able to say is Sok sabay, a greeting that literally means “Happy healthy,” or its playfully meaningless inversion, Say sabok.

The reason I’m losing these languages is fairly obvious: I haven’t been back to Indonesia, Turkey, or Cambodia in a while, and I don’t at the moment have any plans to do so. When you don’t practice a language, you start to forget it. Duh. If I really wanted to speak Khmer, I’d find a way to stay in Phnom Penh—or seek out the sole Cambodian restaurant in New York. (It’s a food truck often parked near NYU.)

The strangeness of my life as a travel writer is that I can’t actually plan things this way. I get to go all over the world, but usually only for short stretches—two weeks is all that my wife will let me be away from her and our daughter. (And that’s about as long as I want to be away, too.) That is, I can pick almost anywhere I’d like, knowing that I won’t stick around long enough to gain deep familiarity with the tongue, and also that I probably won’t return any time soon.

Which, to be honest, has led to my becoming quite lazy. At the beginning of last summer, for example, I spent two weeks island-hopping my way across Greece. And apart from learning hello and thank you, I just didn’t bother trying to pick up anything else. The Greek phrasebook sat at the bottom of my bag, unopened. Frankly, I didn’t need it. Just about everyone I encountered, from tourist hotspots like Mykonos to tiny villages on overlooked islands, spoke enough English for us to communicate well, sometimes perfectly. In fact, one of the first Greeks I befriended spoke English with a very familiar accent—because she grew up in Queens.

Throughout all of these English-language conversations, I felt guilty, of course. A good traveler, I’ve always believed, has to make the effort to learn as much as they can about a new place, and that includes the language, even if that means they’re going to mangle and misuse my new vocabulary. It shows they’re trying, that they care. And yet here I am now, not caring enough to try. It’s terrible, I know. But that’s the end result of my particular experiences—why strain myself to learn something I’m going to forget soon after? Does that make any sense?

Well, at least I’m comfortable feeling guilty. That’s not something I’m going to forget. And it’s also something that’s likely to spur me on to—one day—really focus on learning a new language well, maybe even as well as I know French. Perhaps I’ll move my family to Taipei, and finally master Mandarin. Or to Ho Chi Minh City, where I’ll finally formally study Vietnamese. Or maybe I’ll stick around New York and take classes in one of the heavily cased languages—Russian, Greek, German—that have always stymied me.

Or how about this: The other day, I was having lunch at the house of a Burmese friend, who was showing me how to eat with my hands. It was a skill I’d picked up a little bit on a trip to Malaysia, and I relayed to my friend a saying I’d learned there: “Eating with utensils is like making love through a translator.” You know what? I’d like to be able to say that in fluent, accentless Malay—a language, I understand, that is almost the same as Indonesian.

Nine months ago, on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Surabaya, Indonesia, I began flipping through Lonely Planet’s Bahasa Indonesia phrasebook, not expecting to learn much of the local language. After all, this was a mere five-hour flight, and I’d had virtually no exposure to Bahasa before. How much could I pick up before we touched down?

As it turned out, more than enough. Arriving in Surabaya without a hotel, I made my way to the office of a travel agent—who didn’t speak much English. Hoping I might find an old converted villa, I somehow put together the right question: “Is there an old house hotel?” I asked.

It wasn’t quite grammatical, but the travel agent understood instantly, and booked me into the gorgeous colonial Hotel Majapahit, which was right around the corner (and surprisingly affordable). On the five-minute walk over, I marveled at my luck, still kind of shocked at my ability to communicate.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have been. For most of my life, I’ve been pretty good at languages. I learned French well enough in high school that I can still, 20 years later, not only get by but be myself in Francophone countries. I studied Italian for a single semester in college, and while I don’t know that language as well as French, I can more than get by all over Italy. Spanish I can read and understand because I live in New York City, where advertisements and Spanish speakers are everywhere; speaking it myself, however, is a chore. Mix all these together, and I can read Portuguese.

It’s not just Romance languages I’ve learned. A year in Ho Chi Minh City gave me some grounding in Vietnamese, and ever since I met my wife, almost 14 years ago, I’ve been learning (albeit slowly) the Mandarin that is the official language of her native Taiwan. In my travels around the world as a writer for the New York Times and other publications, I’ve picked up bits of Turkish, Khmer, Japanese, and Korean, and learned to read the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets.

Now, I hope you won’t take this exhaustive catalog as a boast. Because the fact is, I’m not fluent in any language besides English, and I probably never will be. Actually, in the past year or two, I think I’ve reached my linguistic limit.

That Indonesian I learned a mere nine months ago? All gone but for tida’ apa- apa, a phrase that means “don’t worry” or “never mind.” The Turkish? I can thank you (teşekkür) for the apple (elma) and sit in a chair (sandalye) at a table (masa) to eat it, but I’ve forgotten how to put even the simplest sentence together, let alone figure out how to use the correct case (uh, nominative?). Khmer, which I studied seriously for a month and took great pleasure in speaking—oh, those complicated aspirations!—is vanishing. Soon all I’ll be able to say is Sok sabay, a greeting that literally means “Happy healthy,” or its playfully meaningless inversion, Say sabok.

The reason I’m losing these languages is fairly obvious: I haven’t been back to Indonesia, Turkey, or Cambodia in a while, and I don’t at the moment have any plans to do so. When you don’t practice a language, you start to forget it. Duh. If I really wanted to speak Khmer, I’d find a way to stay in Phnom Penh—or seek out the sole Cambodian restaurant in New York. (It’s a food truck often parked near NYU.)

The strangeness of my life as a travel writer is that I can’t actually plan things this way. I get to go all over the world, but usually only for short stretches—two weeks is all that my wife will let me be away from her and our daughter. (And that’s about as long as I want to be away, too.) That is, I can pick almost anywhere I’d like, knowing that I won’t stick around long enough to gain deep familiarity with the tongue, and also that I probably won’t return any time soon.

Which, to be honest, has led to my becoming quite lazy. At the beginning of last summer, for example, I spent two weeks island-hopping my way across Greece. And apart from learning hello and thank you, I just didn’t bother trying to pick up anything else. The Greek phrasebook sat at the bottom of my bag, unopened. Frankly, I didn’t need it. Just about everyone I encountered, from tourist hotspots like Mykonos to tiny villages on overlooked islands, spoke enough English for us to communicate well, sometimes perfectly. In fact, one of the first Greeks I befriended spoke English with a very familiar accent—because she grew up in Queens.

Throughout all of these English-language conversations, I felt guilty, of course. A good traveler, I’ve always believed, has to make the effort to learn as much as they can about a new place, and that includes the language, even if that means they’re going to mangle and misuse my new vocabulary. It shows they’re trying, that they care. And yet here I am now, not caring enough to try. It’s terrible, I know. But that’s the end result of my particular experiences—why strain myself to learn something I’m going to forget soon after? Does that make any sense?

Well, at least I’m comfortable feeling guilty. That’s not something I’m going to forget. And it’s also something that’s likely to spur me on to—one day—really focus on learning a new language well, maybe even as well as I know French. Perhaps I’ll move my family to Taipei, and finally master Mandarin. Or to Ho Chi Minh City, where I’ll finally formally study Vietnamese. Or maybe I’ll stick around New York and take classes in one of the heavily cased languages—Russian, Greek, German—that have always stymied me.

Or how about this: The other day, I was having lunch at the house of a Burmese friend, who was showing me how to eat with my hands. It was a skill I’d picked up a little bit on a trip to Malaysia, and I relayed to my friend a saying I’d learned there: “Eating with utensils is like making love through a translator.” You know what? I’d like to be able to say that in fluent, accentless Malay—a language, I understand, that is almost the same as Indonesian.

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