Do you speak another language? Do you try to speak the language in the places you travel? What is the role of English as a world language? These questions about language and travel are ones that I often consider because I teach English courses in the U.S.A.
I teach English to immigrants and international students in higher education; in other words, I don’t teach “the college equivalent of kindergarten,” as the woman next to me on the airplane recently called it. Instead, I teach to people who hope to get a college degree in the United States, so we learn summarizing, public speaking, essay writing, and research skills. It’s entirely academic and complex, not at all like kindergarten for adults (that comparison actually offends me). Because of my work, I am simultaneously aware of the value of other languages and the importance of English globally. But what I’d like to look at now is the question of what we should expect of people and language, on the road and at home.
I actually think that we need to be easier on ourselves…that if we travel and do not speak the language, we should not feel like losers, and that if you are trying to learn a language, give yourself a pat on the back to acknowledge the difficulty and time commitment of what you are doing.
Let’s remember that learning a language is much more complex than most people realize. Those people you meet around the world at hotels, bars, museums, and airports who speak English have put in numerous hours learning vocabulary, verbs, pronunciation rules and much more so that they can speak with you. While most of the people do not speak English perfectly, just the fact that they are able to understand most of what you say and speak back to you reflects an enormous effort that you cannot see. In a related vein, many people do not have the resources (money, time, etc.) needed to really learn a language, and that is okay.
Should we try to speak the local language when we travel? I think you should to the extent that is feasible and comfortable for you. On this trip to Italy, I made almost no effort to speak Italian. I used just a handful of words: “buon giorno, buona sera, arrividerci, grazie, cappuccino, poco, ciao.” Does this make me a lazy traveler? I don’t think so because I was there learning more about Italian culture and life than most travelers do. I would love to learn Italian and to use more basic phrases while traveling there, but I arrived exhausted mentally and physically…my brain just wasn’t its sharpest self the whole time, and pressuring myself to use more Italian wasn’t practical.
The truth is that I have to stay true to what is possible for me…I have very little time, a head full of information and a second language (Portuguese) that interferes with just about any other language bit I try to force in there. Of course, if I were in Italy longer, I would learn…Plus, I was humble and apologized for not speaking Italian.
My general feeling about language is that we, especially Americans, need to be more patient with those who are learning English and recognize that no matter where they are on the spectrum of learning, they have sacrificed free time, money, and energy to learn. I applaud them for doing so because English is increasingly becoming the global language.
At the same time, we should be more accepting of those who are traveling and not suddenly trying to converse in the local language. Sometimes traveling is tiring, and adding pressure to speak the local language doesn’t help…plus, the locals sometimes speak better English and may be eager to practice. When the languages do not connect, a smile and gesture of humility can go a long way.
What do you think about language learning and travel? What is your experience learning another language or using one while traveling?