Yesterday I went to a party at a house where four women of different nationalities live. Naturally the crowd matched their diversity, with a count of at least 9 different countries represented. There was almost no overlap in the primary languages, except for one Swiss guy who found himself with Germans as well as a Frenchman to talk to.
Growing up in the US, it was of course part of the education to learn another language, but it was rather like a hat to wear at Ascot. Not very practical, but you pull it out every now and then, impress everyone, have a good laugh, and then put it away in favor of something more useful. I learned French in school, and enjoyed it tremendously but I didn't have a chance to actually use it on real French people until age 20. This is the common story. You can travel six hours on a plane and still be in the United States where everyone still speaks English, and there's all the diversity of landscape and climate and population density in one country that you could ever want, both for business and pleasure. So, knowing another language is a nice thing but hardly necessary.
Then I come here, and an idle mention that I speak French blossoms into having to edit proposals in French, and then I keep finding places and pockets where it's the most useful language to communicate. Evenings out or in usually bring me into contact with half a dozen other nationalities, so any other language knowledge is bound to come out and put through its paces. Even my three sentences in Russian and the other three in Portuguese have been enough to surprise and create a connection where there wasn't before.
The lack of shared words doesn't seem to stop people from communicating anyway though. For example, last night at the party I came upon three goldsmiths having a riotous conversation, but none of them spoke the same language with the same abilities, so they'd resorted to a blend of Pictionary, good guesses, and gestures. Other conversations would begin in one language, switch to another midway through, then back to a third for the benefit of a newcomer. Here, nobody is impressed if you can speak another language, at least unless you're from the US. Then everyone falls over themselves with amazement that I learned it there and don't sound like a mangled goat when I talk. It happens, people, and there are a lot more of us out there that can do it.
I still feel woefully inadequate when most people are fluent in at least two languages and have picked up two or three others while studying, working, or just for fun and thrills. If I stick with this lifestyle maybe it'll happen to me too, but for now I'll just have to be content with understanding the Danish cooking instructions on the back of the frozen veggies, or the sign about gastronomical diseases in Norwegian that's been put up in the bathroom at my work.
Ship sighting: This afternoon as I was heading to the pool, there was a little fishingboat in a driveway I pass often. It was wonderfully out of context there in the midst of the usual Reykjavik neighborhoodness- house, driveway, house, yard, trampoline, minivan, boat. When I passed by later, a tarp had been rigged up over the stern and I could hear conversation underneath. I guess they've got a DIY preparation for the next fishing season going on under there.