In college, I majored in Linguistic Anthropology. I speak five languages — English, Spanish, French, Czech, and Italian. And whenever I travel, I usually make it a point to learn at least a few polite words in the language of the host country I’m in.
Except for Norway. I had planned on learning my ‘basic five’ — hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and Do you speak English? — but the days stacked up with work, and any free time I had prior to the trip was spent with friends and family. I failed to learn anything beyond takk (thanks), and when I got off at Oslo Gardermoen airport, I figured this was going to be a very difficult trip.
When I moved to Prague to begin my study abroad program, I spent hours, whole days even, trying to perfect my Czech.
“I don’t think I’ll bother learning Czech,” a fellow student had said, when we were about to board our transatlantic flight. “No one speaks it outside of the Czech Republic. What’s the point, really?”
I stared at her, shocked, disgusted. What’s the point? The point is to show respect for a place that’s not your own. The point is to prove to the world that Americans don’t take other cultures for granted, and that we’re capable of trying to be multilingual, especially when there are people in developing nations who don’t have running water, but could ask for a drink in three or more different ways.
The point is, that every other person in the world learns at least some English before they arrive in the United States. Most of them speak it better than I do. It’s only fair that, as native English speakers, we should do the same.
Knowing at least a little of the host language has gotten me quite far in the past. It’s helped me purchase goods at local prices in the markets of Accra. It comes in handy when trying to get picked up by sexy men in Buenos Aires. I know that if I at least attempt to communicate with people in a form familiar to them, they won’t see me as another American stereotype.
It’s sad, but you can’t deny the McDonalds-eating, faded-blue-jean-wearing, “WHY CAN’T THEY SPEAK GERD DAMN ANGLISH?!” American traveler is very much alive and well. By speaking Spanish in Mexico, Japanese in Japan, and Uzbek in Uzbekistan, maybe I can show the world a different side of my culture.
“Can I see your boarding pass?” the cashier asked, once I stared at her first Norwegian-spoken request, blank-faced. We exchanged words in English for the rest of the Aquavit purchasing ordeal.
I felt dirty. I felt like my years of training in other languages, and developing an acute ear for picking out dialects and accents, had been all for naught. I hung my head as I walked away, wondering how I’d ever get to my rented apartment if I didn’t know how to ask for directions.
I try not to assume that the people I interact with can speak English. I think it’s something too many people think is a “given,” and it gets them into trouble. It didn’t matter to me that Scandinavian countries lead the rest of the world in English as a Second Language fluency — if Norwegians were capable of learning English, I was capable of learning Norwegian.
But the more I didn’t speak Norwegian, the more comfortable I felt speaking English to everyone else. I wasn’t really met with animosity for the language I used. Only once did someone roll their eyes at my failure to comprehend what they had said, and even then I didn’t feel so bad, because that’s just a rude thing to do in any culture.
I realized that, while it’s awesome to go all-out and try to become fluent in ten languages, the reality is, English is spoken everywhere. Maybe it really isn’t necessary to “trick” locals into thinking I’m one of them, if it’s only for a week-long vacation. Maybe people can get by in another country just by being as polite as they are at home.
Maybe it’s less about knowing how to conjugate verbs, and more about just not being an asshole.
People from the United States have a huge advantage — in most cases, wherever we choose to travel, someone, somewhere, will be able to communicate with us. Not everyone can say the same.
Do we take it for granted? Absolutely. Does it make us bad travelers? I don’t think so. I think there’s more to travel than trying to blend in. It would be nice to be a walking Tower of Babel, but I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up whenever we think an episode of miscommunication has tarnished part of our travel experience.
Maybe that person who works at the Eiffel Tower isn’t insulted that you don’t speak French; maybe she just hates her job, and that’s why she comes off as being less than thrilled to be selling you a ticket.
I ended my trip to Norway the same way it had begun — without learning any Norwegian whatsoever. I had to have menus translated for me. I couldn’t pronounce tram stops correctly. I relied heavily on pictures to help me figure out what the hell I was buying at the grocery store (Norway has many different types of milk), and even then, I wasn’t always successful.
But I did it with a smile, and with lots of apologizing. I still had some very cool cultural exchanges, and I still had an epic time traveling through a new city. Would it have been better if I had spoken only Norwegian?
Maybe. I would have been able to eavesdrop better.