Most people know that someone who speaks two languages is a bilingual person. Speaking three languages means you’re trilingual. But speaking one language mean you are American.
It has now been over three years since the Next Great Byrd Adventure began. It has brought a lot of changes to my family and my outlook on life, the world, and even my view of the United States. I remain a proudly arrogant American by birth and Southern by the Grace of God, but I see my country better and different from having been outside it and experiencing life in other places. One thing that cannot change is that Southern heritage. Growing up in the South means you learn sir and ma’am as well as please and thank you and it’s that last one I want to talk about most.
Within a month of moving to Germany I already felt bad about myself. While I knew practically no German the Germans around me all knew some English. More than enough to be able to communicate. Oddly, I learned that saying “Mein Deutsch ist schlecter den als Englais” poorly simply emphasizes the fact that my German is worse than their English. The reason this makes me feel bad is that I never bothered to learn Spanish. Like most Americans I have wrongly not learned a way to communicate with the influx of Spanish speakers prevalent all over the US. They are to my home what I am to my current home. And why not learn a way to communicate to help them? What does it cost, what does it hurt, and more importantly isn’t it the kind thing to do?
On one of my earliest international trips, I believe I was headed back to Afghanistan at the time, I met a drunk Dutchman. He was a big, heavyset, red-nosed drunkard. As I talked with him he commented, “Everyone learns English, or German, nobody ever learns Dutch.” He went on to board the plane but left me with two thoughts, the first was a memory that I had always wanted to learn Dutch. I knew it was a small country with a small population of native speakers but I found it interesting. But after having me him, I lost my desire. The second thought was that the first foreign language I ever learned was at a church picnic (I believe at Flint Creek). I met a South African who taught me several Dutch phrases. She wrote them down on a paper plate which makes it seem funny to me that the only phrase I remember was Ek is hunger. Who can’t remember a plate that says I’m hungry?
Tying all these seemingly unrelated topics together, the easiest thing to learn in any language is thank you. Gracias, danke, j’an qujeh (I can say it even though I can’t spell it), tashakor, grazie, even merci are all powerful words that even if they don’t open a door are able to make whomever you are dealing with feel appreciated. Nowhere did I find this more apt than when I was in Budapest. Hungarian is a tough language for an English speaker, and moreso than in Germany (which was hard to beat) I found the Hungarians to be excellent multilingual communicators, especially in English. Then, at the end of my interaction with them I said the single word of Hungarian I knew, kurzenam. That one word made every single person I said it to smile and most became exuberantly happy and talkative.
Having been able to experience 18 countries has been nice. Being able to say thank you in 8 languages is rewarding. Neither is the largest of numbers that will win a contest for places been or languages spoken, but it is the greatest of accomplishments. The only thing that can overshadow that accomplishment is to learn to say thank you in language number nine.