Should you learn the local language when you’re traveling? Amy Huang recounts a tale of cultural cringe, and shows that even a few words in a foreign tongue can win new friends.
There was trouble two tables away, a man with his wife was unhappy with the café service. Tempers were flaring, arms waving and even the usually calm waitress was starting to raise her voice.
“I said no sugar, no wheat and no diary,” the man shouted, “I am allergic to it. A-L-L-E-R-G-I-C! Why don’t you understand English?”
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Around the table eyebrows were raised and eye balls rolled. In this lovely little café in Ulm, Germany he was making a scene. Of course the waitress didn’t speak English, and even if she did I don’t blame her for not trying. After all, we are in her country.
From time to time when I am traveling, I get a little embarrassed for being an English speaker. There is a misconception among English-speaking countries that everyone else in this world speaks English and that they should speak English.
Over time, I have seen too many encounters of this kind of arrogant behaviour from tourists and I don’t blame those who repel this kind of attitude by being blatantly rude to English-speaking visitors.
I am not saying we should be expected to learn every language of the world; however I do believe we should at least acknowledge that not everyone in this world speaks English nor have the desire to learn, and we should try harder to use their own languages as much as possible before resorting to our own or sign language.
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A while ago, I was café hopping in the town of Strasbourg in France looking for something to cure my sweet cravings. Stepping into a small corner patisserie, I was met by a grim-looking grandmother behind the counter, looking at me with dismay.
I noticed the camera dangling from my backpack and immediately understood her hesitation to greet me: I was a tourist and no doubt about to give out demands in English.
I broke into a wide smile, making sure she knew I had come in peace, and said a shy “Bonjour”. She smiled back, and after a good look at what’s available, I decided on two lovely looking biscuits. “Deux…. deux… sil vous…. Plait?” I struggled, hoping that she will warm up to me.
“Oui! Oui! Two cakes yes?”
It took me by surprise, as the French are often known for their absolute refusal to speak English, even if they did know the language. I concluded that she was so happy someone at least tried and made an effort not to assume she spoke English, that she decided to make it easier for me by speaking her part in English to me.
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. When we encounter tourists in our own countries, we are not expected to be able to speak to them in their language, and we also get frustrated when our visitors cannot express themselves, so why should we expect them to speak in our language?
One of the most important lessons I have learned in my years of traveling is to always learn a bit of the local lingo, and smile. A bright, friendly smile with a few words can go a long way.
Have you ever attempted to learn the language of a country before visiting? How do you overcome language barriers on your adventures? Tell us in the comments below.