Last night we had a multilingual conversation around a campfire – English, French, and Spanish. Ellen and I were both able to participate actively, but one American guest was struggling to the point that whenever the conversation drifted away from English, he left the fire and sat on the other side of the garden for awhile. This was yet another moment that made me grateful that Ellen and I are pretty good at picking up languages. That’s not to say we’re in any way fluent in Spanish – we still fumble and stutter and mumble trying to express our ideas – but we seem to recognize the patterns and catch the sounds better than a lot of travellers we’ve met. We might not know as many words as other travellers, including the American guest who had lived in Latin America for years, but we seem to be able to go beyond the words to get our point across. We’re not sure why it is easier for us than others, but since I did my Master’s thesis on foreign language learning in adults, Ellen and I have a lot of theories on what might be helping.

One likely possibility is that we have an ear for the sounds of the languages because we were exposed to foreign languages as children. Ellen was only in French Immersion for preschool, but I spoke French at school until I was eight. Our parents used to throw the occasional French word or phrase into conversation as well, so it was normalized for us. We also had foreign nannies living with us while we were growing up – Ulla, the only nanny we remember, spoke German, but before Ellen was born we had French nannies too, and I believe one Spanish-speaking one. When Ellen was a teenager, our farm hosted international volunteers through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, at the time, now Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Although we usually spoke English to the volunteers, we heard all sorts of languages spoken. That exposure to foreign languages might help us recognize foreign sounds that don’t occur in English.

Another idea is that we are naturally pretty good at pattern recognition, and language is made up of patterns. I took linguistics courses in college, and I loved parsing out sentences and deconstructing them to see how they fit together. Our favourite subjects throughout our educations have been pattern-based – mathematics and physics come to mind for me – and I remember joyfully trying to find patterns in the multiplication tables to help me remember them. I haven’t figured out the patterns of verb conjugation in Spanish yet (Ellen is much further along in this than I am) but individual words usually fit pretty neatly into what I already know. Spanish is Latin-based, as is French, so it’s not too hard to see how the Spanish word relates to a French word I’m familiar with, and usually to an English word or two, although English doesn’t translate as directly. Take the Spanish word for sun: sol. Sol sounds an awful lot like its French equivalent, soleil, and although it doesn’t translate directly to the English sun, it comes close to more academic words like solar system. Another example is the word rosa, which means pink. The word for pink in French is rose, and roses are often pink.

A traveller we met also suggested that we learn languages well because Ellen and I have been in practice more than most. Ellen speaks German quite fluently, which she learned as a young adult when she lived in Germany for about two years. I learned Korean while working as an English teacher near Seoul for six years, so switching into foreign language mode isn’t as hard for me as for someone who has never spoken anything but English. The theory has merit, I think, but Ellen and I see the downsides to being multilingual, too – sometimes you just don’t realize you’re speaking the wrong language. Sometimes a whole phrase of German escapes Ellen’s lips without her having the faintest clue that she wasn’t speaking Spanish. I’m usually pretty good at not speaking Korean when I mean to speak Spanish, but French sneaks in when the Spanish word doesn’t come fast enough. I also seem to have a mental block about two-syllable Spanish words – if the Korean word is also two syllables, it comes up in my mental dictionary before the Spanish one. I’ve often found myself asking for 우유 (oo you) instead of leche when I want milk, or throwing 어제 (aw-je) into a sentence when I meant ayer, yesterday. Since nobody I’ve met here speaks Korean, they just think I’m completely off-track when I accidentally throw a Korean word into a Spanish sentence.

Most of the time, though, when Ellen and I want to speak Spanish, we are able to do so. At this point in time, it doesn’t really matter why we’re pretty good at it. The only important thing is that we are able to communicate, and we are. I look forward to many more evenings spent with diverse groups of people, sitting around campfires, skipping between languages depending on who is participating.