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Have you used your language skills in an emergency situation?

As time goes by, members of our community add more to their list of multi-lingual experiences. I've read a lot of stories, like getting a new job, getting promotions, traveling to new countries, making new friends, ordering dinner in one of the languages you're learning here, and so forth. Languages are great for those things. But, did you know that having even a little ability in another language can help save a life?

In total, I so far have shared six emergency-related accounts now, below the list is a new one:

  1. The importance of multi-lingual access
  2. Language community helps find blood transfusion for former Duolingo staffer
  3. Spanish in a Crisis
  4. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Spanish came to our rescue
  5. In jail and denied language access
  6. Have you used your language skills in an emergency situation?.

Here is the new one. It wasn't an emergency, though, it could have turned into one. It was certainly not a pleasant experience. I was on a five day backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park this summer. My backpacking partner and I were already several days in and had just reached the apex of our journey. I had not been feeling all that well but had pushed on for a few more miles uphill.

We finally made it to the top when it began to rain. I put up my tent without any energy to completely stake down the rainfly or change into my wool sleeping clothes. I wasn't even able to get into my sleeping bag. Instead, I tried but had to yield to failure. I pulled my sleeping clothes over me like a blanket and fell asleep. A thunderstorm raged and I didn't have any energy to pay it mind, barely waking here and there for a moment.

When I woke up a few hours later, I was disoriented. I crawled out of the tent to find the weather had cleared. I tried, but was unable to stake down my rainfly. I was also unable to talk. However, I was able to minimally communicate using American Sign Language to my backpacking partner. They checked in to see if I was alright and if I needed anything. I think I asked for water and possibly a snack. Because I was able to communicate a little, they stayed calm and didn't aggravate my condition, which would have extended its duration and elevated the intensity. An hour or so later, I was able to function again. I finished staking down my tent and we worked together to get water filtered and start preparing dinner.

I am curious if you've used your language skills in an emergency situation? What happened? (Though, please don't be too graphic in your descriptions.)

Edited May 24, 2018 This post tends to come up a lot in conjunction with Are your language goals holding you back?. So, I wanted to link it. My goal is not fluency. I keep refreshing the basics though because of everything else mentioned in this post. Please, don't give up on at least gaining and maintaining minimal language skills. They are a worthy and valuable use of time and energy.

October 16, 2017



Traveling across rural Costa Rica in the Spring I came across two people, and older couple speaking french. I was crossing lake Arenal, and I took note of them. When we got across the lake to go to our various destinations, I told the bus drivers where I was going in Spanish and got directed to my appropriate bus. I noticed the French speaking couple struggling to communicate with the Costa Ricans, who were trying to speak to them in English then in Spanish.

I, knowing a little bit of french, walked over and tried to ask them where they were going. They said some stuff and Monteverde and Santa Elena and were directed to the appropriate bus. They said thanks and we were in the same bus. I tried to ask them some things in French like where they were from when we got in and when we stopped. They could mutter a few words in Spanish in a heavy French accent and I muttered what French words I knew in a heavy mix of a French-Spanish accent, trying to recall what I had learned in French in the months I spent learning french on Duolingo.

I thought it was a fairly interesting experience. I also have an arabic story that isn't an emergency, but I am proud of it.


That's an idea for a discussion post then. Mine was very specific. But, you could invite people to share their stories in general. :)


Walked up some sandunes on Golan heights wanting to see view at top in 1975. Israeli tank turned up on road below and soldiers shouted at me to stay still. I don't know now what language but they had no English. We communicated in the little school French I had and they told me I had walked over a minefield (it was unmarked and I had no idea) and that I should carefully retrace my footsteps back to the road. However I should wait until both they and the car had retreated to a safe distance!

When I had got back to the road they came to where I was and gave me an angry scolding as now I had revealed a path through the mines and they would have to patrol that area until the wind erased my footprints.

I am still amazed that we communicated in French. I learned so little French in school and I am not sure I could have that conversation even now, after several months doing DL. However, to be honest, I think they did most of the speaking.

Is this the kind of thing you were thinking of as an emergency, even though it was not as a result of learning with DL?


That is so frightening. It also breaks my heart :(


That is crazy and horrifying. When I was in Israel and the West Bank I learned about how many mines there are. I worked on a farm in the West Bank on the border with Jordan, and to get to the date plantation we passed two mine fields daily.


Not quite an emergency. In Buenos Aires a few years ago a trio (at least) of pickpockets tried the ensuciar/limpiar trick on me. I refused to cooperate and they quickly disappeared. I reported the incident to a policeman on patrol a few blocks away. I was surprised to find myself using Spanish I didn't know that I had ("intentaron robarme"), and we communicated with one another effectively. However, I didn't remember the intersection at which it occurred, and I couldn't tell if the pickpockets were peruanos, so I wasn't much help to him. The same pickpockets tried to victimize me a second time in a different part of the city, but I just kept walking.


An attempted robbery falls under the scope of things I had in mind when I used the word "emergency". I'm really glad you were ok!


2 years ago, when my english was really basic, my family and I went to Mallorca. We were on the airport but it was HUGE and we couldn't find our Taxi, which was supposed to bring us to our Motel/Hotel. So we went to the ''Information-Station'' (idk how to call it), mom was standing behind me, swearing in russian and gesturing around (xD). In the end, I used my terrible english to figure out where out Taxi was. It worked. So if you travel around, english is really helpful.


I'm glad you were able to find your way. Being stuck somewhere unfamiliar is no fun.


Yes, pre-Duolingo I used my Italian to break myself out of an Italian hospital. Unlike the US, hospital treatment there is excellent and inexpensive (my two days and many, many tests would have cost me tens of thousands of dollars in the US), but also unlike the US they can hold you once you are there, and you cannot check yourself out. They would not agree to let me leave as I had had a fever and they wanted to monitor me for several more days - but I argued, in Italian, with a very feisty doctor. I think the only reason she let this crazy, stubborn American leave was I was very polite (used the “Lei”) and spoke to her entirely in Italian.

Luckily or not for me, I was sick before I left, so my tutor had taught me all the words for illness.


Dcarl1, good to see you! Getting stuck in hospitals is the worst xP I'm glad they weren't charging you out the nose.

Idiom note: to "charge out the nose" or "charge out of the nose" means to charge exorbitant amounts of money.


No. 2 is absolutely amazing. <3 I wish I knew who that person was so I could give them 5000 lingots.


Aww, nah keep your lingots. Their old staff account here hasn't been active since they left the company. I asked if they preferred me to mention them by name back when I posted it, but, they preferred for their name not to go beyond those who participated. So, I've honored that. But, dang it was really an amazing, global effort. I don't know how many languages people communicated in to make it happen. My own contributions were only in English and Spanish. But, I contacted my friends, which includes an array of course moderators and contributors in different countries, and they contacted people they knew in their own countries. So, a lot of languages. :)

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