The Voice of the People: Using Foreign Languages When We Travel

As a native English speaker who loves to travel, I’m very lucky. There are countless languages spoken in countries right on my doorstep and unlike some English-speaking nations we know, there are no plans for a wall to separate us and them. But I have yet to travel anywhere where the majority of people who I have encountered don’t speak at the very least a few phrases of English. img_7201

That said, I still like to give the native languages of the people I meet a good go, to varying degrees of success. The educated side of me says it’s through politeness that I have this desire to try to converse in a new language. The cynical side says it’s just for my own pleasure and ultimately novelty value.

But is it truly important to pick up some words or phrases of a local language? Or is is just part of the fun?

Truth be told, I am a bit of a linguaphile. So much so, I don’t mind making up that word. I studied languages and linguistics at university (French and German), I’ve taught myself enough Spanish to feel comfortable having a conversation and I’ve even dabbled in Portuguese, Russian and Swedish. (Because Danish was just too damn hard – sorry Denmark.)

Thanks to this interest in, and contact with, languages that are not my own, I don’t find it hard to at least try a foreign language and don’t easily embarrass when I get it wrong (except in the two that, according to my CV, I’m fluent in.) I’m sure that when I get to go to Budapest, I’ll attempt Hungarian and if Krakow calls to me, Polish will become an obsession for a few weeks.

But I know lots of people who don’t feel the need to try. I’m sure sure many people I know have been to Prague without knowing the name of their language is Czech and visitors to Vienna who think they speak Austrian. And they’re no worse off for it. At least not for them to enjoy their trip.

When we travel abroad, a great many of the people we meet have been told for better or for worse that they need to speak English. Whether you work in a Swiss ski chalet or a Thai diving school, it’s pretty much a prerequisite of employment that you speak English – native or not. English because it’s a widely spoken first language with around 500 million speakers – a measly 7% of the world’s population – but also because it is the most  well-learned second language with a further 510 million boasting fluency in English as a foreign language. This boosts the overall number of speakers to very roughly 15%. Still a small number you may argue but for a planet counting several thousand ways of speaking, one seventh isn’t half bad for a language that started life on a small, cold, wet island off the coast of Europe.

This figure can be said to give English the status of a lingua franca that binds us all together. Much to the dismay of the God of the Tower of Babel story.

A group of tourists from the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and Iran (just the first few that popped into my head) on a tour of Paris are more likely to all know English than French or any of their respective languages (being Dutch, Norwegian, Turkish and Persian.)

The same goes for restaurant staff, hotel workers, ticket salespeople and irritatingly beggars who ply their “trade” in tourist centres. If in doubt, use English and people will give you money. With English being my mother tongue, it seems “foreign” to me for someone to think about speaking English when they travel to Spain instead of Spanish as many non-anglophone tourists do – and many Brits and Americans with them.

But can, if anything, really be gained from speaking Spanish in Spain, French in France or German in Germany? Should we really care about being that polite to the man who brings our food? And as for cultural experiences, all the museum plaques are in English   so we’re not missing out there. But for me, I just simply cannot go anywhere without learning how to say a simple thank-you.

On a recent trip to Spain, I discovered that there’s a lot more to it than the phrasebooks and GCSE Bitesize can show you about how to speak “foreign.” Sure, you may be equipped with yes, no, please and thank you. But sometimes even just for these basic interactions, you’re probably not doing it right.img_7203

As I’ve said, I’ve learned enough Spanish to converse in the language. And the basic polite phrases are one of the first things I learned. But thanks to being a bit of a linguist, I was quickly able to realise that such things aren’t used as I might have expected.

An understanding of language in general, especially your own, is key here. While many an English person will say “can I have a coffee please, thank you, sorry,” translating this into Spanish is tantamount to sticking a flashing sign above your head saying “I’m a foreigner!”

While I learned many years ago that the English use of “can I have,” is an unnecessary side effect of a stiff upper lip and a simple “coffee, please” will suffice, I was not at all prepared for overhearing in many cafés in Spain, “darme un café!” This literally means “give me a coffee!” No please, no sorry. Had I no knowledge of Spanish, I would probably just assume the café owner and his patron were just talking, in raised voices, about the weather and would just carry on speaking Spanglish. But instead I learned something because I tried to learn the language.

I’m not about to start demanding coffee in this way because something inside me makes me worry that they know that I know that if I were to translate the phrase into English, it would make me the rudest person in Starbucks (and that includes the old bag arguing about how she didn’t get the “normal coffee” she ordered because she was presented with an Americano) but nevertheless it gives an insight into why, perhaps, some people consider Europeans rude. It’s just language.

I once spoke to someone of an older generation who, in Rome, asked for a latte in the lovely overly-priced café they decided to rest their tired legs at ( I could list many faux-pas related to coffee). In English-speaking nations this may be an undeniable request for a certain type of milky coffee but had said older person bothered to even pick up a phrasebook, they would know that the reason said milky coffee is so called is because latte is actually Italian for milk. Long story short, they ended up with a glass of milk. Choice phrases such as “idiot foreigner” were thrown about and it all gets a little embarrassing after that.

It may sound like I’m attacking the ignorant British tourist here. It wouldn’t be the first time. But what we must remember is that the poor Roman waiter who does speak enough English to fulfil his job role has probably never learned that in England et al. latte is a type of coffee. He probably thought that she was making a half-baked attempt at speaking Italian (half-baked because she preceded latte with “can I have a.”)fullsizeoutput_4d3

And this why if we all made an attempt, we’d probably get along a lot better with each other. If I can travel somewhere not speaking a language as confidently as I do English, I know what it feels like to get a bit confused sometimes.

It’s for this reason that I believe I can understand foreign languages a lot better when someone is talking directly to me than when I’m trying to eavesdrop. They’re probably simplifying their language to speak a Spanish, or French, or German that is closer to English in syntax and pace because they know exactly how it feels when you think you speak a language well and then Lisa from Liverpool starts speaking in full-on Scouse asking if you “would mind getting me a serviette lovey.”

At the end of the day though, it is all about the novelty really.

I admit that learning a few words of Icelandic would enhance a trip to Reykjavik and I do like the sound of my own voice in Spanish more than I do in English. Quite often I’ll base my level of desire to want to go somewhere on how easily I think I can pick up the language in the time between paying Ryanair’s booking fee and actually landing safely in the country with my knees squashed up to my ears on the plane.

For me, walking around Paris and knowing that a flat is up for rent because I can read “à louer” is part of the excitement of just being in a place. And people-watching is so much more fun in Munich than it could ever be in New York (unless the cast of Sex and the City walks past) because they’re all speaking German (or Bavarian – that’s for another time.) Super geil!

I may have used a guidebook to learn that Santiago de Compostela’s Praza do Obradoiro is Galician for Workshop Square but a bit of linguistic knowledge goes a long way for the less well-known but equally as interestingly-named streets.

Knowing that the German word for queen is just the word for king with a feminine suffix added (König becomes Königin) makes visiting Schönbrunn Palace much more engaging and exciting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But I’m not naive. I know that this sort of thing excites me a lot more than it does most people. I know plenty of decent people who couldn’t care less that Alhambra comes from an Arabic word meaning “the red one.” But I can’t help but think that just being that little bit more open-minded about foreign languages would give Anglophones a much better experience in visiting beaches, historical sights and most of all the bigger collection of people they could potentially speak to.




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