One could automatically deduce that being in a country where everyone speaks English would be relatively simple for a foreigner who also happens to speak English. Most of my conversations with people, which have been in, well, English, have gone something like this:
Person: Hello how are gobble dee goolly lah?
Me: *Smiles* I’m sorry, what?
Person: Gah gah kittens loh lah
Me: Haha oh yeah pretty much, that’s usually how it is
Me: Well, have a good evening!
Person: You too!
Given the amount of time I’ve spent around people from all over the world with all different accents and levels of English fluency, you’d think my comprehension would have increased over time. While backpacking through Europe with a friend a few years ago, said friend was, shall we say, awful at understanding anyone with an accent that was not American or British (the latter on a good day). Of the two of us, she was also the one more likely to approach a stranger when we were lost and needed help (I always enjoy wandering around for 5 hours, dehydrated, limping, with a nice flow of sweat trickling steadily from my underarms, before being forced to ask for directions). Sometimes, without warning, she would pop over to someone and ask before I even realized she was gone. Upon her return, we’d have the following conversation:
Me: Well, what did they say?
Her: No idea.
Me: That’s good.
Then we would eventually find someone else, this time making sure I was present for the conversation, and be on our merry way. The point is, I understood. However, over the past 3 months, it has dawned on me that this skill—does one call it a skill when it comes to understanding their own native language?—has severely declined. Since I haven’t picked up any new skills recently, at least nothing to any enormous extent, I can only assume that the area of my brain which once enabled un-American-accent-comprehension is now a black, cobweb-laced hole where occasionally a gust of brain-wind sends a tumbleweed rolling through just for giggles (being a liberal globalist, the irony here is not lost on me).
Today alone I had two such interactions. Interaction 1 happened at the shopping center. I had bought some chocolate-covered almonds and wanted to sit on a bench to eat them whilst people-watching. As I approached the bench, an old woman with a walker arrived at the same time. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Oh would you like to sit here?
Lady: Oh yes. I’m just waiting for my husband to finish shopping.
Me: *Moving to the other end of the bench* No worries (I say “no worries” all the time now. I think Aussies say it a lot, otherwise it’s just a habit I formed for no apparent reason. I digress.)
Lady: That looks blah bleh blu blah blah
Me: Sorry, what was that?
Lady: *Nodding towards the nail salon in front of us* That looks blah bleh blu blah blah
Me: Haha oh yeah, I could use that right about now.
Lady: *Laughs* Giggly goo gah gah
Me: Haha I know, right?
And on it went until her husband came back. He asked if she wanted coffee. “Ask if she wants coffee and she pops right up!” He said to me. Finally, a sentence I understood—and could very well relate to.
Interaction 2 happened on my walk back from the shopping center. I saw a man sitting on the grass next to the sidewalk. It was a very odd place to decide to take a rest, but I heard meth is a big problem around these parts, so I didn’t question it too much. Then I saw he had an ankle brace on and I realized I may have jumped the gun on the meth hypothesis. Anyway, once I was about 10 feet away or so, the conversation began:
Him: Excuse me, do you know where the bus stop is?
Me: *Pointing in the direction of the stop* It’s that way.
Him: Yeah but looly doo dah city foo dah?
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t know, I’m not from here.
Him: You’re from America?
Him: Knew it.
I’m still not sure if it’s my accent that gave it away, or if he’s suggesting that Americans don’t know anything. Either way, I got away from there quickly. Pretending to understand people is tiring and I really needed some space.
Walking home, I finally understood how my friend felt that one summer as we backpacked from country to country, not understanding anyone despite communicating in English. All it took was a trip to Australia.