Not many people travel abroad. Those that do have almost certainly encountered the language barrier at some point. If they haven’t, they probably haven’t experienced much of the foreign country they are visiting or traveled to a place where English is the lingua franca. I have been humbled by my inability to communicate in man of the places I have traveled, and extremely grateful that others are patient enough to work through the language barrier with me.
As an American, I have a sense of entitlement when traveling abroad. I’ve always asked first if someone spoke English. It’s very selfish to wander into someone’s country and ask if they speak YOUR language. Fortunately (or, perhaps not) English has become the diplomatic language of the world. If you want to work internationally, it’s a good language to learn. That sets a dangerous precedent for Americans as it doesn’t encourage us to learn other languages in a meaningful way. We’ve become language lazy because everyone learns to speak our language. Sitting in a hostel in Vienna, Austria, I witnessed a Chinese man, a German woman, and a French woman having the most awkward conversation. They all spoke several languages, however the only one that they shared was English, and none of them were particularly fluent. The German woman and the French woman were speaking in French to each other in order to figure out how to say something in English while the Chinese man just sat there waiting for a word he understood. I just took note in my journal about how lucky I am that these human beings were trying so hard to figure out a word in my language by asking each other in a different language. How spoiled are we Americans?
I encourage everyone I know who travels to identify when they are in a situation where they are literally at a loss for words in another country. It might be the kick in the pants they need to start to learn something new and not just take for granted their status as an American, where everyone learns their language. If they can’t learn a new language ( or won’t, whatever) then take time to help someone that is learning English to become more conversationally fluent. The hostel I stayed at in Prague, Czech Republic, had the same guy on the late night shift because his English was so great. When he told me this, I felt really bad, because his English was light years ahead of my Czech. He probably speaks better English than some Americans do! I spent a few hours having coffee and talking with him in English. When he had to search for a word, I asked him to help me learn that word in Czech. I learned very little Czech, but he learned a lot about grammar, syntax, and slang. I understand how hard English is to learn because I’ve seen people trying to learn it. I take it for granted, but I’ll never be the guy who makes fun of a foreigner speaking English, at home or abroad. The least we could do, as Americans, is try to learn the language of the places we visit, just like many Americans expect foreigners to do before they come to our country.
There are ample opportunities to learn a language, Live Lingua just so happens to be one of the best. Total immersion forces you to learn differently. Skip the part where you’re lost in the Polish National Forest outside of Krakow, Poland and trying to figure out how to get back to your hostel after a 17 mile trek through the forest. (Seriously though, Bus 31 from the zoo takes you back to Old Town.) Get a few lessons and see how you like learning something new!
Mike Leydet is an avid traveler and woodworking hobbyist home-based in sunny Virginia Beach, VA. He has traveled on miles and points to over 20 countries and across the United States. He has two cats who both dislike travel, but allow him several weeks a year to be out and about exploring the world without too much grief when he returns. You can follow his adventures on Facebook: Explore the World With Mike