John Grindrod: Feeling linguistically inferior in Europe

By John Grindrod - Guest Columnist

Certainly, over the course of my life, there have been countless times I’ve felt absolutely clueless, especially when faced with any challenges that require more than a modicum of mechanical aptitude.

But, embracing what I believe to be the most insightful of a myriad of aphorisms that have been coined over time, that one about the smartest people being the ones who know what they don’t know, when something goes wrong around my domicile that’s mechanical in nature, I generally turn to my pal Dennis Bauman.

Now, the one arena in which I’ve always felt comfortable is the English language. However, when it comes to any other of the thousands of languages that our kindred spirits speak around the globe, I am absolutely as helpless as a newborn babe. And, that became abundantly clear yet again on my recent European travels to Germany.

This was my fifth European trip, covering parts of nine countries, with all of the visits coming on coach tours either by a couple of first-rate companies, Trafalgar or Globus. For any considering a first visit to Europe, I highly recommend you to go this route, where all the arrangements have been made.

In my experiences, the lodging and dining have been top shelf, the tour directors extremely knowledgeable and, perhaps most importantly, the coach drivers have demonstrated effectively, especially in large cities like Rome, London, Dublin and Edinburgh, their abilities to navigate safely our oft-congested and narrow highways and byways.

Each time I travel to a European non-English-speaking country, I’m amazed that the tour director as well as so many other service people in the hotels and restaurants not only speak their own country’s language but also speak English and, when it comes to the travel directors, several other languages as well. Tossing a 50-cent piece of diction at you, they’re polyglots.

Three years ago on a trip to Central Europe that encompassed Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, our tour guide was Croatian. When I noticed in each country that she was able to converse so easily with citizens in their language, I just had to ask her how many languages she spoke. She said five fluently. While I told her as a former language instructor, I stood in awe of that, she downplayed the notion that she was doing anything special. She told me that there were many she knew who spoke more than five.

Again, when I expressed dismay, she explained that in her job and so many other occupations in Europe, especially jobs in the business sector, speaking multiple languages is vital, since you have to interact with so many people to make a living and since European countries are in such close proximity.

For example, say you’re a Berliner who sells building products, and there’s a construction project in Poland that could mean a potential big sale. Well, the border that divides Germany and Poland is about 50 miles from Berlin. So, don’t you think that your not being able to speak Polish is going to hamstring your chances to get that sale?

In the United States, in some states such as Texas and California, you can drive for upwards of a thousand miles and never leave the state. In Alaska, if you started at the end of Homer Spit Road in the small town of Homer and drove to Prudhoe Bay’s Spine Road, you’d have traveled a whopping 1,099 miles.

However in Europe, compare that to gassing up your BMW in Munich with the intention of driving through five countries. You could go from Prague, Czech Replublic; to Bratislava, Slovakia; to Budapest, Hungary; to Vienna, Austria; and STILL only have logged 602 miles!

So, despite the fact that it’s understandable that our European friends are so much closer to their neighbors in other countries, it still makes me feel pretty inferior when it comes to that communication thing that I thought I did pretty well.

During my travels through Germany, I was able to figure out some words on signs because of the similarity in spelling to words in my native language. For instance, when I would see above storefronts the word “Apotheke,” I knew it was a drugstore, since my New England relatives call their drugstores apothecaries in their patch of real estate.

However, for me to try to understand anything more than an occasional word here and there, borrowing the New York vernacular, “Fagitaboutit!”

And, so it has been for me whenever I’ve been fortunate enough to see non-English-speaking countries on my travels. Certainly, there are many challenges the typical American traveler faces when abroad, but for me, the most humbling is that feeling of being almost helpless when it comes to understanding the languages that so many Europeans speak with such ease.

By John Grindrod

Guest Columnist

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at

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