I’m starting a new three-part series about common misconceptions from an American perspective. While there are more than three misconceptions, I’m choosing to focus on the ones I’ve noticed as a tourist and as a local. The third of this three-parter focuses on speaking English abroad.
*Author’s note: It’s difficult to talk about the English language without sounding austere or politically incorrect, but I chose this topic because I think it’s an important misconception among tourists that should be addressed.
The English bubble
My relationship with the English language fluctuates between being encapsulated by a massive bubble and feeling completely naked and exposed. I can go from thinking everyone speaks English because I live in a country where English is the second language to “how do I express myself in another language if I can’t rely on English?”
I oftentimes feel grateful that the language of business is my native language and it can give me a certain advantage in non-native English speaking countries, but that feeling is often mixed with frustration. Being born a native-English speaker, it wasn’t “necessary” especially in America to learn another language.
When I look to my friends who are all fluent in at least two languages and some of them in six, I experience a pang of jealousy. I will never understand what it’s like to flip so fluidly from one language to the next because I am not hardwired that way. To be blunt I’m a bit better off than most Americans as I can get around in Dutch and Spanish and to an extent in very basic German and French, but I am nowhere near fluent as I can’t even get close to holding a conversation in German and French, and my limit without inserting English words in Dutch and Spanish is about three to five sentences on a good day.
I won’t dive into a history lesson because that is not my purpose here and I’m also not an expert in the history of Europe, but my understanding and I think many people’s understanding is that most Europeans know multiple languages because of trade and conquest. And that’s marginally true as just above 50% or more speak multiple languages. Although, on close inspection of the data, it’s not always English.
There’s a gap in logic when thinking that even though Europeans are living in cramped quarters, they can all speak English. English is a prominent Germanic language but if I live in Spain and all of my English entertainment is dubbed in Spanish and my news is in Spanish and my instruction is in Spanish, and my family speaks Spanish then I develop a dense Spanish bubble.
Similarly, learning English inside of the classroom does not make someone an English speaker. I was taught Spanish on and off for 15 years and by that standard I should practically be a native speaker, but I’m not because I never really practiced outside of a classroom.
Not everyone in Europe speaks English
Fact. If I am a travelling American going to Greece, I cannot expect that the person I am talking to can understand English and/or respond in English. It’s an assumption that we as English speakers make due to our lovely English bubble, but it’s an incorrect assumption. And the assumption was built through a combination of nationalism (“everyone should speak English”) and the realisation that the sun never set on the British Empire, meaning the proliferation of English is still wide-spread.
This doesn’t mean that we should have to learn a full language before travelling to an exotic country, but I caution about visiting with the perception that everyone will speak English. Because unless we’re visiting an English-speaking country, that’s not always the case.
Communicating in another language
Ah, my favourite subject and a reoccurring theme in my writing. As part of the travel checklist, I suggest adding this nice little line item: Always learn one phrase in every country you go to.
Excuse me, sir or madame. I have a question. Do you speak English?
If the answer is “no”, then miming is an appropriate fallback. If miming doesn’t present itself to be a strong communication tool, then I also suggest to learn the basics.
Yes, no, please, thank you. Do you have…? I would like…? Where is the train? Where is the toilet?
These phrases are usually staples of any country guidebook and are easy to keep in your pocket as you travel. I’ve been notorious to take out my guidebook when I travel to a country where my knowledge of the language is minimal to none. When I studied in France I made it a point to try and speak in French when I was out and about. One time I was in the post office in Lyon behind the counter, barely peering over a giant box I was trying to purchase and ship. It took me probably five minutes as I flipped through my French guidebook attempting to piece together words that ultimately culminated in me saying something like: “I have a box. Mail this box please.”
And while I may have looked incredibly silly, my message was conveyed and the task was completed. It’s important to forgo any trepidation about being embarrassed speaking another language. If this is a barrier to learning a bit of a new language before travelling, then jump over that barrier quickly.
The goal is to get the point across and if we struggle in doing so, that’s completely okay. It took 2.5 years of living in the Netherlands for me to be comfortable with struggling in another language. And I much prefer to struggle than assume someone speaks my own language and be unable to convey what I want.
*Second Author’s note: This is written in a mix of British English and American English. I opted to not change it because this is part of how I communicate now.