Last night we went to dinner at a new friend's house. It was a fun group of people, 11 of us total, and we had 5 different native languages (English (2), Portuguese (4), Spanish (1), German (3), and Turkish (1)). Not something that would happen all that often in Burlington, Vermont! That is definitely one of the interesting aspects of living in Europe. In some respects Dan and I are at an advantage, because in these situations the default language is usually English, though Portuguese and German both worked their way into conversations last night. In other ways we are at a disadvantage, because for those that have grown up in Europe, learning and using multiple languages is not something new. For example, one of the Portuguese guys at dinner has nearly perfect English, plus speaks Spanish (as most Portuguese can to some extent), some French (also very common), can get by in Finnish as a result of living there during school, and is now working on his German. In the US we consider ourselves renaissance men if we can speak one other language! Oh yeah, and he's only 27.
It helps that some of these languages are close in both structure and vocabulary, in particular, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. A few weeks ago when Dan was in Milan for work, he said his Portuguese colleagues could speak to the Italians in Portuguese, and the Italians would respond in Italian, and everyone understood enough of the conversation to make it work. Similarly, we have heard that once we know Portuguese we will be able to understand Spanish, though our Portuguese probably won't be understood by most Spanish speakers (the Portuguese say that the Spanish have always looked down on them and see no reason to try to understand their language). The fact that many Americans have to travel thousands of miles to even have the opportunity to really try other languages is amazing to most Europeans, while for us, the fact that they are exposed to and able to speak so many is a fact we are extremely jealous of. It also seems to make them much less inhibited to try to use their language skills, while I bumble along and lose all confidence in my Portuguese if I am unsure of my verb tenses or prepositions. I know no one cares -- I realize I don't care when non-native English speakers make mistakes -- I just need to convince myself now. I'll work on it.