"I don't want to have it from a whore."

My Slovak classmates stopped chewing their bread and cheese sandwiches and stared at me.

"What did you just say??"

"I don't want to have it from a whore..." I repeated in Slovak.

It began to dawn on me that I had said something terribly wrong, because my 17-year-old classmates were grinning from ear to ear and looking at each other like an epic practical joke was unfolding in slow motion before their eyes.

"Wait, wait. Say that again? What don't you want?" Now they were laughing at me.

"I don't want to have it... uh... from a whore..."

My classmates were rolling in laughter. The hapless American exchange student had made their day.

So much for my witty response to their offers to share their sandwiches with me during our class field trip. What I had actually wanted to say was, "I don't want to get scurvy." It seemed like bread and cheese sandwiches were all they ever ate. With a diet like that, one might indeed develop a vitamin C deficiency. I had innocently supposed that the word scurvy might be the same in Slovak as in English. Little did I know.
My school year in Slovakia was off to a
good start... (Trenčín, 1994)

Read my advice for exchange students, missionaries,
students abroad, and international volunteers.

Worst of all, with my one-month-old Slovak I was utterly incapable of explaining to them what I had wanted to say. I would just have to swallow my pride and move on.


That year in Slovakia was the beginning of a 20-year fascination with foreign language mastery and cultural assimilation. Hear my story first-hand on the Actual Fluency Podcast


16 of those years have been spent living abroad, mostly in Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia. Along the way I've picked up 8 languages in addition to my native English (in order of acquisition):

- German: B2*
- Slovak: B1
- Russian: D1.5
- Ukrainian: C1
- Polish: B1
- Spanish: B2/C1
- French: A2
- Georgian: B2

*My estimates as of January 2017 using the European Framework descriptions with my extensions (Ø = unskilled, A = basic, B = independent, C = proficient, D = functionally native; 1 and 2 denote gradations of each level)

6 of these have been languages I've spoken around the house for extended periods of time. I currently speak all of my languages on a fairly regular basis and aspire to be comfortably fluent (B2/C1 level) in all my languages simultaneously. I run a foreign language club in Tbilisi that holds weekly or monthly meetings in nearly a dozen different languages.

A typical meeting of the Tbilisi Spanish club, 2015

In contrast to many language hobbyists, my main interest has always been quality, not quantity, though you probably wouldn't think so if you heard my French (my worst language). I've spent years honing a single language — Russian — and use it constantly in my private life and as a conference interpreter and writer. I decided at age 19 to make Russian my primary language and would probably still be living in Ukraine had it not been for changes in their immigration policy.

On a walk in Tbilisi, 2016

I'm not a globetrotter


I like to firmly establish myself in a place and accumulate social capital. I am averse to abandoning the lifestyle and relationships I've taken so long to build. Most of the time I was in Ukraine, I was entirely surrounded by local friends and contacts.

The early days. Kiev, Ukraine, 2002.

Leaving Ukraine after nine years was tough. Nearly three years would pass before I reached a similar level of comfort in the small Caucasian country of Georgia. But then the momentum I had built up, initially born of desperation, carried me further than I had ever gone in Ukraine.

With the popular Language Exchange Club, my constant hike announcements, and my occasional guitar concerts, I became something of a well-known figure in Tbilisi. Through a fortuitous introduction, I broke into the tightly-knit community of simultaneous interpreters. Now I translate into Russian and English at international conferences within Georgia and abroad. I am busy with writing projects and other work of my own choosing. I bought a studio apartment on the edge of town and designed the interior to my liking. My life is full of friendship and affection.

With the other interpreters at a
conference in Istanbul, Turkey
I expect to remain in the post-Soviet region indefinitely and am in the process of getting dual citizenship (U.S. and Georgia).

- My language logs: how I juggle 9 different languages over the course of a week.
- Read more of my personal stories.
- Read my bio at Amazon.com
- Follow me on Twitter

You can reach me (Richard DeLong) at richard@frictionlessmastery.com.

January, 2017
(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.