Linguistically, Hungary posed very few problems. I could read signs, menus, and descriptions of items in museums. Communicating with others was also fairly simple—either I could conduct a conversation on my own, or my sister would cover the more complicated stuff, like figuring out how to retrieve our delayed luggage after we arrived from Frankfurt. About a week ago, however, we left Budapest to spend four days in Vienna, and I am now writing from Prague.
Vienna posed some definite language problems. However, knowing both English and French we were sometimes able to extract a key word or two from many texts. German menus were sometimes more comprehensible than their English translations—for example, a menu that listed Wiener-schnitzel in German offered Anglophones Viennese Shred in its place. A local also told us that Austrian students have to take either English or French as a second language, which may explain why so many of the Austrians we interacted with spoke excellent English. Those who didn’t, however, were willing to play along with our apologetic sign language, with special props going to the pharmacist who sold me the highly effective decongestants. Prague, however, is different. Czech is almost completely unrecognizable, with the exception of contemporary words derived directly from English, such as ‘notebooky,’ meaning a notebook computer. This leaves us much more helpless than in Austria, and people here are a bit less patient when it comes to breaking through the language barrier.
When thrown into situations where you can no longer count on your linguistic skills, it’s interesting to see how far you can get. Airports and train stations are particularly easy, with big, pictorial signs pointing you in the right direction. Shopping, too, can often be done by pointing or with hand signals, or you can wander around the store until you find what you’re looking for. Eating at places with pictures of food is also helpful, allowing you to just point at the item you want. The potency of graphic design also becomes evident—despite the label that reads, “Lentilky,” it’s immediately evident that a certain candy package contains Smarties. Obsessed with the value and weight of the written word, it’s strange to live without it and still get by, for a short while, anyway. Having no common language with someone can either be a hopeful experience, with both people patiently working towards understanding each other, or an alienating experience, with one person either rejecting or exploiting the person with limited language skills. Knowledge of any language is a powerful thing—and we don’t lose much by sharing our expertise.