Speak Many Languages

March 2016

Recently I’ve been in a lot of situations that required reverting to “traveler’s English”. There are two different aspects to traveler’s English: speaking it and interpreting it.

Speaking in traveler’s English means enunciating clearly, simplifying sentence structure, and choosing basic vocabulary to describe things. The best guide for how to do this is having learned another language yourself - you can think about what *you* knew how to say at the very beginning of study, and stick to that.

Listening to and understanding someone speak traveler’s English is a different skill entirely. “Tiny thing that flies” becomes “tiny bird” which becomes “sparrow”. This is something of a cross between playing Taboo and reading Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer book.

Coincidentally I’ve been learning several new skills recently as well. So while I’ve been on the fluent end of the spectrum with language (apart from some regional turns of phrase), I’ve had to adopt a beginner’s mind for these new foreign tasks and concepts. The kind people who have agreed to train me in their methods of building a homestead have also been required to speak in elementary terms when it comes to giving me direction around their farm. Something simple like “put the feeder over top of the straw” when the context isn’t immediate and clear can sometimes turn out a bit like Amelia Bedelia. Despite the fact that I’m getting literal instructions, in many cases I don’t have the background to know *why* I’m being asked to do something. I don’t see the implicit goal, or immediately realize that they’re being asked to do X in order to Y.

The word “fluent” is usually applied to language, but a broader definition would include being familiar with basic concepts and quick to jump to the next highest level of abstraction in any realm of competency. The phrase “speaking someone’s language” is itself something that has more context than the literal definition of the words - it implies an implicit understanding and connection between the two people.

A person could therefore be fluent in the mechanics of car engines, for example. When they look at the individual parts and how the design fits them together, they’re in fact fluently speaking a language with the manufacturer. Even if they’ve never worked on a Toyota before, they’ve seen so many engines that they know the basics so well, which makes it easy to make the jump and guess what these new “words” mean. The same goes for woodworking or writing software, just to name two examples that happened to come to mind.

Someone not being fluent doesn’t mean they’re dense. They just haven’t yet developed the muscle memory or the instinct or the familiarity to immediately be up to speed when someone says “tongue and groove joint,” for example, and already be thinking about how that compares to other joints and why the speaker might be mentioning it in this context. They might be focused entirely on the literal translation of “tongue and groove”.

All of this makes “what do you mean by that” a particularly critical phrase. It’s critical to know how to say it in the case of learning a foreign language, and in the case of trying to become fluent in a different realm of competency, it’s critical to use liberally. Developing the instinct to immediately get clarification when it’s lacking speeds up your ability to become fluent in the language of whatever skill that you’re learning.