As Ben Elton observed in Gridlock, native English speaking travellers seem to think their language becomes understandable to non-English speaking people if they speak slow-ly and LOUD-LY.
Common sense says this is rubbish, but after an hour lost in the maze of Cairo’s streets, fruitlessly searching for the 7 am bus to Egypt’s western oases, I was desperate:
“CAN YOU HELP ME FIND THE BUS TO BA-HA-RI-YA?” I asked a bewildered-looking Egyptian student.
How many Brits would understand a similar request from an Egyptian traveller looking for the bus to a local location? Probably most, because it’s is unlikely to be made in Arabic. Instead, as with travellers from other countries where English is not the mother tongue, the Egyptian traveller would, at the very least, have some knowledge of English from school or elsewhere.
And this is what sets British travellers apart from the rest of the world. Before travelling overseas, most of us don’t even bother to learn a few foreign words and phrases, let alone another language.
With the extent of British colonisation and dominance of American money and culture, English has become the world language, the lingua franca. Should beings from a galaxy far, far away ever visit Earth, they will speak English, as portrayed in countless American sci-fi films. But it’s worth remembering Spanish is more widely spoken in the Americas than English. Everyone in the world does not speak English — and thank goodness for that.
One of the joys of travel is experiencing different cultures. And language is as much a part of a country’s culture as its history, art or food. For example, when in Rome, who would dream of ordering fish and chips for dinner instead of pasta? So, when thanking the waiter or waitress for a meal, should you say “Thank you” or “Grazie”? Choose the latter, and you’ll likely receive the reply, “Prego” (“You’re welcome”). You’ve tasted another country’s culture, in more ways than one, and been made to feel welcome for your efforts.
In addition to pleasantries, a few foreign words and phrases are invaluable when shopping, booking hotels, reserving buses or trains, or simply asking for directions. A point worth noting is that many languages do not use the same Roman script for their alphabet as English. Numbers can also look different. For instance, although English numbers are based on the Arabic system, they bear little resemblance to written Arabic. And knowing foreign numbers is quite handy for paying the right price at markets and finding your seat on a train.
Of course, learning Portuguese for two weeks on the Algarve is overkill. However, learning basic words and phrases is not difficult, and the effort can be rewarding.
While wandering the back streets of Lagos on a grand European backpacking tour, I crossed paths with an elderly woman whose scowl was as dark as her widow’s weeds. I smiled and said, “Boa trade” (“Good afternoon”). Her wrinkled face lit up. “Boa tarde,” she responded with a smile that had us both feeling good.
And to think only took two words of Portuguese!
Don’t get disheartened
Knowledge of the English language has spread throughout the world. And there will be times when your much-practised greetings and questions will be answered in English, particularly by the younger generation.
On my grand tour, I approached a young guy in Vienna for directions, explaining, “Ich bin verloren”, to which he responded, “Ah, you are lost. I think it is best we speak in English.”
If this happens, don’t get disheartened. The person you’ve spoken to is probably practising their English, and you’ll have a chance to use your new words and phrases elsewhere. And based on my experience, a non-English speaking person will appreciate your efforts.
It’s worth the effort!
The American critic Dorothy Parker said of an acquaintance, “You know, she speaks eighteen languages. And she can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.”
Sadly, I speak only one language fluently, English. However, I have learned to say “Thank you” in twelve languages.
So, when the Egyptian student went out of his way to lead me to the bus for Bahariya, I shook his hand and said, “Shukran” (“Thank you”). He smiled and replied, “Ma’a salama” (“Goodbye, peace be with you”).
Proof that it is worth learning another language — if only a few words and phrases!
© 1992, 2017 Robert Fairhead
I wrote this piece for a BBC travel magazine in 1992, when I lived in England. I’ve left out one of the original sections on “The means of learning a foreign language”, because it’s dated, with talk of “video” and “cassette” courses and no mention of the internet or podcasts etc. However, I think the sections on “Why bother” and how “It’s worth the effort” to learn another language have stood the test of time. Thankfully!
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please contact Robert for further details.