‘DO. YOU. SPEAK. ENGLISH!?’
We all know the stereotypical image of an impatient traveller speaking in patronisingly slow English which makes us recoil in embarrassment. To me, this is completely the wrong way to go about communicating with locals whilst on our travels.
The issue is, however, hard to pinpoint. With English becoming a global language and the boom in the tourism industry, some people expect to find someone who can speak the language and don’t feel guilty about not making an effort to speak the local language. Others want to try and communicate in the local language, but fear making mistakes and causing offence. Some feel it is their responsibility to learn the native language in order to communicate effectively.
It is unrealistic to expect to become fluent in a language in the weeks before you arrive in a country, unless, of course, you have been studying it for years. But it’s not impossible to learn a few simple phrases and avoid that mocking behaviour and those awkward hand gestures. What could be more embarrassing than to speak to someone painfully slowly and simply, only for them to respond in fluent English?
Of course, for those looking to really get to grips with a language, courses like Rosetta Stone can help you fully immerse yourself in a language, but that comes at a hefty cost. Few of us can afford the £150 price tag for the most basic package. Fortunately, there are many other options. The BBC website provides basic introductions to European languages, while Memrise is a fantastic online resource for those wanting to learn a bit more than the basics of a wide variety of languages. And best of all, they’re both free!
Yet, also out there are books which make these language learning tools seem redundant and time consuming. I was dismayed to see on the shelves of the country’s most popular bookstore a publication entitled ‘This, please’, which turned out to be a tourist picture dictionary. I can see how pointing to universally recognised pictures can help avoid confusion, but it leaves little scope for interaction and immersion in local culture. In fact, it encourages laziness.
We don’t need to become experts in a language; indeed not all of us have the time to learn all the useful phrases, but simply learning ‘Do you speak English?’ in the local language could avoid a lot of embarrassment and gives locals the opportunity to simply shake their head without feeling put on the spot to try and communicate with you in a language which may be completely alien to them. Not everyone will have had access to education in order to learn any language other than their own. ttle scope for interaction and immersion in local culture. In fact, it encourages laziness.
Even purchasing a phrasebook and flicking through it on the plane can help you get by and looks like you’ve gone to some effort.
Some people may be discouraged when their attempts to speak the local language are only met by responses in English, but luckily this isn’t too common an occurrence. Instead, waiters, shopkeepers, hotel staff and market sellers will be pleased you’ve made an effort to learn their language. Plus, it’s a good way to learn about the culture and customs, make friends and can earn you extra brownie points with the locals. Who knows what opportunities may come your way if you just take the plunge; don’t worry about making little mistakes, you will be understood and respected because you’ve tried.
In an interview, traveller and writer, Rolf Potts commented on the importance of learning languages. “I’ve been traveling for years without ever becoming fluent in a second language. I have at various points spoken passable Korean and Spanish — and I know bits
of Thai, Lao, Russian, Arabic, French and Greek — but I’ve never mastered another language. I can serve as a great example of someone who has done a lot of travel without mastering languages.”
Proficiency and fluency is not required, but a few phrases of the local tongue and a lot of patience and optimism will get you far and enhance your travels no end. A little bit of effort goes a long way.