Should We Expect People in Other Countries to Speak English?
I started thinking about this issue in Koh Samui while we were staying at a resort. Andy and I went to dinner one night, ordered satay and asked if it came with rice. Our waitress was a little confused at first, but after a couple of tries, she said yes. Of course, when our food arrived, there was no rice. She didn’t understand us at all when we asked about it, so Andy spoke to the manager, explained the situation, and eventually we got our steamed rice.
We were staying at a resort clearly encouraging guests to stay on the property by offering beach access and a pool and a restaurant that served complimentary breakfast as well as a lunch/dinner menu entirely in English, not to mention the location was prohibitive for further exploring. The manager who checked us in at the front desk spoke decent English, but none of the restaurant employees seemed able to handle us doing anything beyond pointing at items on the menu. Other guests we spoke to, from non-English speaking countries, were also frustrated with the situation.
English is everywhere
English has become the universal language of travel and business. It’s a common ground for people who don’t share a first language. It’s one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and more people speak it as a first or second language than any other language in the world.
It happens to be my native language. However, travelers we meet from other countries will also switch to English since it’s more widely spoken than German or Russian or Norwegian or whatever their native language might be.
I never travel to a non-English speaking country expecting fluent English from everyone I encounter. However, I do expect people who are in contact with tourists as part of their job to have a basic grasp of English. A handful of words and phrases that pertain to their job is sufficient.
I also live in Germany and I often have to use German instead of English. It’s wonderful that I’ve been able to find English-speaking doctors, but I always attempt German anywhere else. I’m in their country, and I do think it’s important to learn as much of the language as I can since this is my home now.
Dealing with language barriers
Andy and I are pretty good at working around language barriers and dealing with people who don’t speak English. If we’re in Italy, Andy’s Italian is good enough for simple things like directions or food. If we’re in Spain, my Spanish is good enough to handle basic conversations. While in Portugal, we tried bits of Spanish and Italian and it was close enough that people understood us.
We’ve also done all kinds of silly things to get our point across. In Izmir, Andy drew a castle for a taxi driver who didn’t understand where we wanted to go, and in Krabi he drew fish, a big crab and a river. He also once mimed wiping his ass when we were in Barcelona and I couldn’t remember the word for toilet paper. (Alcohol may have been involved.) In Portugal, he flapped his arms like a chicken and made mooing noises when he was trying to figure out what kind of meat was in some food we wanted to buy. (Ok, so maybe Andy has done lots of silly things, and I stand next to him and laugh.)
It all adds to the fun of travel. It also reminds me that language isn’t everything in communication. Body language, charades and the occasional drawing can go a long way in exchanging ideas and information with people.
Traveling to English-speaking countries
I doubt anyone would ever travel to the US (or most other English speaking countries for that matter) and expect the hotel staff to speak anything other than English. My hairdresser in Freiburg is going to Florida with her family this summer, so she wants to practice her English with me, instead of my normal struggle with German. She does not expect people in the Everglades to speak a single word of German.
Even in touristy areas of the US, I don’t think I’ve ever seen menus printed in other languages or signs posted in other languages. I’m sure it happens, but not nearly as much as in other countries. Certain audio tours are available in other languages, and you can hire guides who speak other languages, but in general you won’t find too many average employees who just happen to speak a foreign language. And when tourists travel to the US, they expect this.
I’m not saying it’s right or fair. It amazes me how many Europeans I meet who speak multiple languages with efficiency. It would probably be better if more native English speakers learned a second language to that level. But as more and more people learn English, native English speakers seem less inclined to learn other languages.
Is it a double standard? Is it unreasonable to expect a waitress at a resort in Thailand to understand the word “rice”? How much of a foreign language is reasonable to learn before traveling to a foreign country? Should we expect people in other countries to speak English?
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April 7, 2014 @ 9:21 AM
You make a lot of great points here. One I would like to add is that the vast bulk of the internet and in it’s early days, it was it entire contents is in English. Another is that most of the freely available information in the world, that is information not censored by governments is in English too. As well as scientific and academic information. So much so that English almost by necessity has become the global standard for communication in the modern age. All that said though, I do think it is rather presumptuous that us white Anglo-Saxon Westerners almost expect people in foreign countries to be fluent English speakers when it is not the official language of the country we are travelling to. One huge anomaly in all of this is Quebec. To their credit and technically the rest of Canada too are bilingual in both English and French.
April 7, 2014 @ 6:02 PM
Thanks for your thoughts on this Matthew! You’re right, there just is so much out there that’s in English that it’s become such an important language to learn. But that doesn’t mean everyone we encounter while traveling will be fluent. Honestly, I’m happy when the person I’m talking to speaks a few words of English, enough that we can play charades for a bit, get a good laugh, and communicate with each other.
April 7, 2014 @ 3:21 PM
Very interesting points. I also try to use the local language as best I can when I travel, especially when I’m in less touristy areas. That said, I think a lot of places and people see English as a key to opportunity. People I met in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan and Georgia all thought it vital that young people learn English so they could have more opportunities when they grew older. I spent a month teaching English to homestay hosts in Tajikistan as part of their effort to better communicate with Western tourists. As you mentioned, most Europeans learn multiple languages so when they travel, they often may need to default to English regardless of the country.
That said I have been shocked as I realize how little information is available in other languages at tourist sites in the US. Where I could go to museums in Europe and find descriptions in up to 5 languages, the US just offers English. Although I was pleasantly surprised riding the Marta in Atlanta that they made announcements in Spanish too.
April 7, 2014 @ 6:07 PM
Thanks Katie! Nice to hear your perspective since you spent so much time teaching English while you were traveling a couple years ago. And I agree, it is strange that so many places in the US don’t offer info in any language besides English, occasionally Spanish. It’s not that hard to have someone translate written signs into a few major languages.
I haven’t ridden Marta in years, so I don’t remember announcements in Spanish. Either I’ve just forgotten or it’s new, but sounds good to me!
April 7, 2014 @ 6:06 PM
I would say never assume anything when you travel! 🙂 I generally try to learn a few phrases/key basics whenever I travel to different countries. In Germany, I was surprised how well my Turkish served me and my Spanish works well enough when we’ve been in Italy. In Poland, so far, I can say enough to get understood, but the vast majority of people I’ve encountered do speak some level of English. For the first 9 months here, I basically used sign language or ordered a kilo of everything because I didn’t speak much Polish yet!
I think Americans, for the most part, have gotten lazy about learning a second language, and I don’t think it’s fair. The US government should invest more in our education system so schools have the time, funds and teachers to teach second languages!
April 8, 2014 @ 11:19 AM
Thanks Joy! Americans probably have gotten lazy about learning other languages, and I’m sure part of that is because English has become such a universal language that people have a hard time getting motivated to learn another language. But I agree, it is important. I can understand about ordering a kilo of everything, I’ve had similar situations with German when I didn’t know enough German to order things properly!
April 10, 2014 @ 5:56 AM
I don’t think that anybody should be expected to speak a language that isn’t their first. It’s nice if people know more than one language (English speakers included), but I think it’s actually quite unreasonable to expect citizens of other countries to learn English. After all, we say they live in foreign countries, but when we visit, we are the foreigners.
April 10, 2014 @ 10:21 AM
Thanks Sarah! I think a lot of things work better in the world when people know more than one language, but yes, when we visit other countries, we are the foreign ones.
April 11, 2014 @ 12:01 AM
I can totally picture Andi using funny gestures to get his point across! 😉 Actually, as far as your point about there only being English-speaking signs in the US, having just lived in Arizona the last couple of months, a lot of things there had Spanish on the signs, too, but obviously that only happens in places with a large Mexican population! I agree that we shouldn’t expect everyone else in the world to speak English and it does make us lazy. Every time I visit anywhere I try and know at least a few basic phrases, and I think people appreciate you at least trying to communicate with them. I’m going to try my best to learn Dutch, even though I know almost everyone speaks English, partly because I think it’s rude to live in their country without being able to converse with people in their own language.
April 11, 2014 @ 10:43 AM
I figured there are some signs in other languages (especially Spanish) in the US, but overall it seems like other countries do a better job of having foreign languages. Doesn’t surprise me you saw a lot of Spanish in AZ. Good luck with Dutch! There are enough similarities between Dutch and English that hopefully you’ll pick it up. I agree that it’s extremely important to learn the language when you’re living in a foreign country, but damn it’s hard sometimes! I’ve been in Germany for almost 3 years and I still struggle with German.