When I saw this MTA poster in 2014, I guessed (correctly) that it was in Polish. For starters, it’s in a mostly Latin alphabet, not Cyrillic, so that ruled out Russian, and I knew it would be a major language found in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Even though I don’t know Polish, I knew the sign meant bad news for commuters—“nie (G)” clearly meant “no G train,” and the picture of the shuttle bus and the word “autobusów” spelled out the alternative.
Understanding words in other languages is not as hard as you might think; we communicate just as much in gestures, the tone of our voices, and the expression on our faces and in our eyes. Plus, you can find similarities—like “autobus”—across many languages.
Sometimes I meet native English speakers who tell me they don’t speak or understand any other language; to that I have to say, “Yes you do.” Like a lot of musicians today, the English language is a crossover artist. While it’s considered a Germanic language, it has its roots in many other languages including Latin, medieval French, and ancient Greek, and we speak words from other languages every day just by speaking English. Look at any dictionary that includes the language origin of each word to get an idea. We can often infer the meaning of a word or phrase in another language from what we already know.
There are so many ways to learn a new language too: classes are the best, and many organizations that offer classes will offer an open house or a trial lesson; recordings you can buy or get at the library; books, including phrase books that include important things like how to ask for directions; apps; videos; flashcards; asking a friend who’s taking a language to teach you a little. Once you have studied a language, try to keep using it or at least review it periodically. If you travel to other countries and go outside the major cities, you are more likely to need to communicate in the local language to order food (a big motivator!) or to get directions—like when you’re stranded at the top of a mountain in Italy at night after the funicular and the autobus have stopped running and you decide to hike down (tip: pack a flashlight).
And don’t forget to listen to music in multiple languages!