Australians: We're no good with languages

By the time I met them, the guys in Peru had already given themselves a nickname: Team Pollo. They were a group of Australians travelling together and had bestowed the moniker upon themselves, not due to their deep appreciation for Bolivian fried chicken but in recognition of the fact they still couldn't pronounce it properly.

In Spanish, the word for chicken is supposed to be pronounced "poy-yo". These guys, deep into their second week travelling through South America, were still referring to it as "poll-lo".

They knew they had it wrong, but it had become an inside joke. The same as saying "no Nintendo" when they didn't understand something - their own special version of the Spanish phrase "no entiendo".

They might not have been linguists, but at least these guys were aware of their shortcomings, which we quickly bonded over. See, I have plenty of linguistic shortcomings too. I'm not good with languages, and neither are most other Australians I've met. You meet Europeans who speak three or four or five - we can barely handle our own. And so in Bolivia I was made an honorary member of Team Pollo, and we struggled on together, on a tour of linguistic ineptitude for Australian ambassadors.

One of the guys, Noodles, managed to find his way into a bano - a public toilet - to attempt to exchange some US dollars, because he'd actually been in search of a banco - a bank.

Another guy, Steve, went to a bar and tried to order a rum and Coke with no ice. He asked the bartender for a, "Cuba Libre, sin culo, por favor". Not bad, except the Spanish for "without ice" is "sin hielo". Steve had ordered a Cuba Libre with no arse.

This was about eight or nine years ago and I'd like to say that I've improved my Spanish since then, but that would be a lie.

I spent four weeks in Seville a few years ago taking language classes, and I still struggle. After those four weeks a local Sevillano guy asked me how long I'd been in the city. "Ah," I said, "una mesa."

The guy laughed. Oh, right. What I should have said was "un mes", or, one month. Instead, I'd said "one table". Muy bien.

Like the guys in Team Pollo, I've accepted my place as a monolingual battler. I'll always try to speak the local language, and I'm surprisingly good at mimicking accents - but I'm also painfully bad at retaining words. Tell me the translation for something, I'll repeat it back, and then completely forget it.

I'm terrible with Portuguese. It took me three or four days in Brazil before I could even summon the confidence to utter the simplest phrase: "Mais uma por favor." Or, "one more please". I pulled that out at a restaurant and my Brazilian friends gaped at me like I'd just mastered quantum physics. Clearly, they'd set their expectations low. I spent a few weeks in Russia referring to restaurants as "pectopahs", because if you look at the word "restaurant" in Cyrillic lettering, it looks like "pectopah". I'd given up actually trying to pronounce Russian words after walking into shops and saying "privyet" - hi - and receiving stony silences in return. You don't want me to speak your language? Fine. I won't. To the pectopah!

I've been to Turkey a few times now and can't remember having uttered a single Turkish phrase. If the local word for "thank you" has more than two syllables, I become very easily discouraged.

Often the phrases you do learn can tell you a lot about the country you've just visited. While in India I mastered one solitary word in Hindi, which I can't even remember any more, but which meant, "go away". My most used of the three or four Japanese words I know has always been "sumimasen", or "excuse me".

But regardless of how many languages I mangle, it always seems to be Spanish that gets the worst treatment. Maybe because it's the one I try hardest with. Maybe because it's the one I like to pretend I can attempt. But I frequently get it wrong, and I'm not alone.

Back in Bolivia, my travails with Team Pollo continued. One of the guys refused to even give Spanish a go, preferring to order his food and drinks by saying, "ah ... dos" after someone else had ordered.

One of the other team members panicked and thanked a waitress with "gracias por favor" - or, "thank you please".

And then there was Craig, who kept meeting new people and saying "aloha" instead of "hola".

It was actually quite fitting. Team Pollo would have been far better off in Hawaii.

Have you ever embarrassed yourself trying to speak a foreign language while travelling? Share your stories below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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