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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. :)


Hey, that's a handy visual!


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.


Isn't it interesting that DL French tells us how to say 'the shark is eating the dolphin', something I don't find in the least useful, but not how to get out of a minefield! More to the point, a few more useful 'emergency' phrases could be incorporated into the learning perhaps? 'He is bleeding a lot from his...', 'the house is on fire' 'A man is drowning' 'there is a bomb' 'drop to the foor'. Etc.


I disagree. With sentences like those, many vulnerable people who have lived through such traumas would not be able to take the courses without the fear of flashbacks. Instead, we can put together those sentences from what we have learned and are likely to remember due their absurdity. Of all of those, I think the only word from your sentences I haven't encountered in Spanish is "drown." :)


OK, but I've not come across them in French yet. And I really hate 'the shark is eating the dolphin'. To me the phrases I gave at least might be useful, but not the one about the shark.

To be realistic, we never know when we might need phrases for serious emergencies.

I do understand about traumatised people, but if people are going to be traumatised by learning such things in another language then they must also avoid all TV and Radio broadcasts especially the news, Newspapers, Computers that automatically give pictorial ads, (house insurance may be sold by picturing a house on fire) and indeed reading what their home insurance and life insurance covers, and many other things.

If people are so fragile following their trauma that these kind of sentences without verbal or visual pictures and explicit emotional context is going to hurt them, then I do hope they seek the very good treatment that is currently available.

Perhaps we need a section that can be released by some lingots that such people can avoid I they want to.

Having said that, if you really feel that the phrases I have written could pose a real risk to people, I would be grateful if you would delete the whole of this part of the thread.I would also suggest that my story and other stories where people are at risk and in danger, such as an attempted robbery are also deleted.

I think you are going a bit too far and are maybe a bit too sensitive in this area, but making the section optional would be an alternative.


It frustrates me whenever people put the burden of their convenience on people who are living with trauma. And, I feel that you are asking for that. If you are not finding the vocabulary you need on Duolingo, there are many resources out there where you can fill in the gaps. It is only a little inconvenient to use a search engine. It is a lot inconvenient for the person with PTSD.

> I do understand about traumatised people, but if people are going to be traumatised by learning such things in another language then they must also avoid all TV and Radio broadcasts especially the news, Newspapers, Computers that automatically give pictorial ads, (house insurance may be sold by picturing a house on fire) and indeed reading what their home insurance and life insurance covers, and many other things.

Some do.

> If people are so fragile following their trauma that these kind of sentences without verbal or visual pictures and explicit emotional context is going to hurt them, then I do hope they seek the very good treatment that is currently available

Some do. PTSD is curable sometimes, but not always. (I am not cured, and I've been in therapy since I was four. I am not affected by the example sentences we are discussing, but, other things, yes. I avoid clicking into articles with certain headlines, etc.)

If you are not finding the vocabulary you need on Duolingo, there are many resources out there where you can fill in the gaps. Duolingo is not meant to be a one stop shop for language needs.

Duolingo almost saved me from a shark is a discussion I read a year ago.

And because someone will invariably be tempted to play devil's advocate and point out that there are likely other sentences Duolingo has that can be triggering. Yup. That's true. It's not a reason to add even more to the pile.



I really respect and admire you and what you do, and actually count you like a 'friend' in the community. I am sorry to hear of your PTSD, and that therapy since the age of 4 has not helped.

I truly wish I had a solution for you and others in similar situations. To hear this of a 'friend' made me especially sad, though I do realise there are many in this situation.

'It frustrates me whenever people put the burden of their convenience on people who are living with trauma. And, I feel that you are asking for that.'

I do not feel I am asking for that, even if you do. I was/am simply having a discussion on a way to help us all more.

I thought that the sentences I gave as examples were rather like headlines, actually less emotive than headlines as there were no visual or audio accompaniments. I also thought those affected by..

'TV and Radio broadcasts especially the news, Newspapers, Computers that automatically give pictorial ads, (house insurance may be sold by picturing a house on fire) and indeed reading what their home insurance and life insurance covers, and many other things.'

..would not be on DL because the people would not be able to avoid seeing much worse on their computer. Thus these people suffering (and I do mean suffering) to that degree would not see the sentences anyway.

This may be where I am wrong. I can understand completely not putting such phrases into DL if people with PTSD to this degree are able to go onto DL while avoiding them elsewhere. No way would I want to hurt anyone.

Having said that, what might be the balance in all of this. I wonder how many people might be helped by some of the sentences used in comparison with how many might be hurt? The 'might' is a crucial word in the question. If the sentences were in an optional, unlockable by lingots section, would this 'solve the problem'?

If you know of where all these kind of phrases/sentences are grouped together, I would love to know. I am not so good at finding resources on the internet.

I will look at the link you give to nearly being saved from a shark attack. I am hesitating because it says 'nearly saved', implying that the person was not saved and I do not look at violent things for no reason, only for learning purposes if I need to learn that thing. I do not have a TV partly for that reason. Perhaps the person is saying how he would have been saved if he had paid more attention, and that would be a reason for including sentences similar to the ones I have suggested. I do hope his injuries are not spelled out in too much detail. In my first aid course in Durban I learned about what to do for people attacked by sharks and saw some videos of it, though thankfully never had to deal with it.

Actually the sentences I have put could be written in a different way, so that we can generalise given the other vocabulary we are learning. So, for instance, without repeating the possibly offending sentence, we might say learn how to say 'the bonfire is on fire' ( November 5 is approaching, a day when in England we light bonfires and have fireworks. Most do not remember the origins of why it is done now, and just have a good family and friends time, thought there are some exceptions).

Meanwhile, I want to apologise for appearing unfeeling. I really am not. Anyone I have hurt in this discussion, please forgive me. I am truly sorry and it has been unintentional.


Edited because I wanted to add more resource links

Hi Anneduol1ngo, I would be more than happy to help locate some emergency vocabulary and phrases. :)

My only concern is that I have no experience in French. So, I can't attest to accuracy of what I find.

However, if you put up a discussion asking for French phrases and vocabulary for emergencies in the French forum, it would give interested community members a chance to join the discussion, start looking for these language resources, and inspire them to think about building their vocabularies in this direction as well. If you post it, I will add my up vote to it. ^_^ (On a related note, I just got a text from my friend in Puerto Rico. They are bilingual in English and Spanish. They told me they are working as a disaster survivor assistant. They are a translator for them.)

This website has some emergency phrases. It has a big advertisement for a tutoring service at the bottom. But, just above that, you will see links to more vocabulary for Health and Illness, Injury and First Aid, etc.

Edit: Woops, hit "save" on auto-pilot before I was finished typing. :P

This website has a better list of phrases than the page I linked above (I didn't check the other links in that other one though.). It is also just a small list. But, it looks like all good stuff to know.

And This website had even more phrases. I feel like Google flipped the order of these. This one should have been closer to the top of their list. I liked it best so far. :)

About the shark discussion, the title is a bit of a misnomer. They got out of the water in time.

PS I support the idea of each course getting a bonus skill for emergency sentences. That way, people could opt in or out of it. It is definitely important to know how to communicate during emergencies. :)


Hi and a belated thanks for your reply. I wanted to look at the links you gave, including looking at the one about the Shark.

On the discussion re the shark, there were suggestion that one could have a discussion on how DL could save lives, and that is close to what you have suggested.

For me, the other sites giving phrases and sentences for use in emergencies, really largely covers what I want. There might be a few other sentences I would want, but this is enough to start off with.

I know you said you would support a discussion on the topic, but, with all you have found on line I don't know if it is really needed. It would soon get lost in the depths of all the discussions. I would favour an unlockable, optional topic to starting a discussion.

Thanks so much for all your help.


I am still progressing with my first tree, and in the section on science have encountered this sentence to translate. In view of our discussion do you think it should be deleted?

I am only posting the link, not the sentence, just in case you don't want to look at it and so that others who might not want to look also do not have to. https://www.duolingo.com/comment/531654


Thank you. I don't have a say over what material makes it into a course. So, it's probably going to stay there. I have brought up the topic of an Emergency bonus skill with some course teams. However, it appears there is a huge snag with bonus skills at the moment. So, I inquired about a course team endorsed Tiny Cards deck. But, with things as busy as they are, I didn't get a yes or a no. But, I will bring it up again with them in the future. :)


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.


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. :)


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.


Usagi, your 1. and 3. links seem to be the same for me--they're both sending me to the "Spanish in a Crisis" post. (Is this the right multilingual access post? https://www.duolingo.com/comment/17990649/ I googled.)

Such wonderful stories! I'm so glad you were able to use your language skills in crisis situations, and I'm so glad you shared the stories with us.


KateVinee, thank you so much for catching that! I've edited my OP now and fixed it. :)


Unfortunately I'm not a very healthy individual (Diabetes, 4 screws in my ankle, nerve damage) and I'm fortunate not to have a crisis happen with me but I'm extremely grateful that my boyfriend is bilingual so when ever I visit him its comforting he will be able to care for me and help me translate if something goes wrong.


I empathize with you brooke, I too have some health issues. I rarely go anywhere alone, actually. And, having someone who could communicate if I visited anywhere emergency and legal services were not in English, would be a huge plus. Even just thinking about having health issues on the other side of a language barrier makes me tense up. I'm really glad he can bridge that language divide when you visit. :)


Why weren't you able to talk? And btw, all of these stories are amazing!


It just happens sometimes. I can predict incidences in which it is most likely to happen, like during a seizure or if I get over stimulated by noises etc. But, sometimes it happens outside of that. I just have a bit of a glitchy brain. When it happens, it's always best if the people around me stay calm or it can take longer to go away or even turn into a seizure. One time, I was in the middle of packing boxes because I was moving and I went catatonic. I just stopped moving outside of the mini-storage place and didn't talk, didn't sit down, didn't respond. I only remember bits of it. I wasn't in any danger or anything. I just glitched out. A good friend of mine has nicknamed me scrambled eggs because of all of the weird anomalies I experience. xD (I know it is affectionate, eggs are their favorite food. Though, I'll know to run very fast if they are ever a zombie! O.O)


I really needed to use my French when i went to Canada.



I would be more than happy to help locate some emergency vocabulary and phrases. :)

How about a master post that offers (and asks other users to contribute with) emergency vocabulary/phrases in several languages? Adding only links in the OP or comments would probably do.

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