It’s concerning seeing travellers trying to communicate with people who don't speak any English, by using more English.
I first realised how much of a problem this is while staying at a quaint guesthouse in Yunnan, southwest China. I watched the petite, old guesthouse owner, affectionately referred to as Mama Naxi, become embarrassingly flustered as a guest spoke to her in English – which she knew a minimal amount. For some reason, the guest thought turning up the volume would help Mama Naxi suddenly understand her.
English is of course an extremely useful lingua franca (a mutual language that’s used as a connect people whose mother tongues differ). Global knowledge of English has created inordinate opportunities, but its expansion can create issues, too. People whose native language is English ought to stop expecting the rest of the world to follow – for multiple reasons.
Travellers are guests – simple
Having English as a mother tongue is undoubtedly an advantage; it's the most commonly spoken language across the globe. But it doesn't have the largest amount of native speakers – Mandarin does. This is followed by Spanish, then English, according to annual language reference publication, Ethnologue. For those who stick to English while travelling, ask yourself, "Why is the onus on someone else to learn your language and not the other way around?"
You could be making the poor poorer
Imagine you're in a marketplace where bargaining is appropriate. You may naturally gravitate to someone who speaks English for convenience, benefitting the vendor who’s had English education, as opposed to someone not as fortunate to learn another language. This shows the tourism world that knowing English equates to fortune, tumbling onto our next point. Our world thrives on globalisation, but as the influence non-English speaking countries continues to grow, people who only know one language (not English) will be consequently looked over for job opportunities. We can reduce this disparity through mindful travels.
Learning even the base of someone's language shows respect
“Up until now, we have believed that English as a language is spoken in most countries and therefore is a better mode of communication, especially while traveling to non-English speaking countries,” says freelance Lonely Planet writer Deepika Gumaste. “However, in the last few years, while the world might have grown smaller and more interconnected, political climate and cultural sensitivities have continued to divide people.”
Lonely Planet guidebook writer Alexis Averbuck speaks about thoughtfulness through language. “Learning even a small bit of a local language can give insights into the culture and shows respect for the people of that area. I notice that many people are glad to see me try to speak their language, even if it’s just the words of polite culture.” Sometimes, all it takes is saying “have a lovely day”, “thank you for your help”, “the food was beautiful” to make someone’s day.
“I have now lived in Greece for many years. On the islands in the middle of winter, almost everyone speaks Greek,” says Averbuck. “I realised that for me to live on the island, the onus was on me to learn the language well enough to take part in conversation. If anyone was going to switch to English, it would be purely for my benefit – a sort of selfishness I could not stand. So, I learned Greek.”
Making absolutely no effort to learn another country's language while travelling has the potential to create greater divisions. Travelling should be about forming new connections and creating positive experiences, not ignorance and entitlement.
"Tourists may expect English to be spoken and therefore approach travelling in a lazy and less immersive fashion,” says Damian Harper, who has been writing for Lonely Planet for over 22 years. London-born Harper has worked hard to achieve fluency in Mandarin and is beyond passionate about learning a destination's language before and during a visit.
“The experience of travelling abroad is robbed of the exoticism and excitement of encountering and dealing with a foreign tongue; part of the fun of travel is lost; getting lost within a foreign language may be disorientating, but it is a superb education: it sharpens the mind and takes you out of your comfort zone.”
Stories told in native tongues are better than in a second language
When travelling, you need to follow a country's laws and customs. Why don't we apply the same thinking to the people, showing them care, attention and respect by attempting to learn languages to unlock people’s stories? This is a longer-term goal, but aiming to reach an intermediate level of a language unlocks something entirely new. Not only the ability to understand more in general, but to understand stories. It’s through stories that proper understanding of a country, its history, its people, its political and cultural landscapes, is developed.
Learn the basics of a language before and during a trip
Sure, you could play charades the whole trip – but it gets tiring. Some people will find you gesturing “toilet” humorous, others may not necessarily have the patience to guess what you’re trying to communicate.
“When learning a language, I start with a simple phrasebook of commonly used terms and expressions – the polite words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, as well as obvious sorts of questions I know I will ask over and over. I practice saying things like ‘where is the bathroom?’ and ‘what time does the boat leave?’, even writing them down (because I am a visual learner). Now, with all of the online material, I also download language-learning podcasts so I can hear native speakers say the words.”
Google Translate is a great resource, now with the option to download languages and access dictionaries without internet access. If you do have internet access, there’s speech to writing feature available, too. A camera function also allows users to scan and translate text. If it’s not Google, ensure you have some sort of offline translator downloaded if you don’t have a data SIM in your phone – no Wi-Fi isn't an excuse.
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For actual language courses, apps including Babbel, Duolingo and Buusu do a good job. If you’re well prepared, start learning the basics a month before you take off. British language platform, Memrise, takes cue card learning to another level. But if you learn best through games, go for Mindsnacks, where you can improve vocabulary, listening and grammar at once. The learning doesn’t have to stop as soon as your feet touch foreign lands – you can continue lessons as you travel from place to place, on trains, buses, flights etc.
“Language is a main feature of the foreign soundscape you are in and sound is – like the sound of waves, the rain, the wind, music, children or whatever – indivisible from the experience of travel,” says Harper. “When you start to engage language, you are literally transported to a different travel dimension and it can take you anywhere.”
Do homestays; spend time wandering through supermarkets figuring out what different foods are named; watch children’s shows; talk to children (they talk a lot slower than the adults); grab a newspaper and translate headlines, brushing up on your knowledge of current events while you’re at it. While it may be uncomfortable, try to talk to locals in their native language. You may surprise yourself in the process.
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This article was originally published in November 2019 and updated in April 2020.