The Universal Language of Travel

As an Australian, I speak English, a smattering of Italian and Japanese and a little bit more of Spanish.

Basic Japanese, I learnt in school, but Italian and Spanish are languages I’ve taken upon myself to try and learn, both for the mental exercise and to try and ease a few language barriers while travelling. I consider this to be one of the greater failings of the Australian education system, that language wasn’t given greater emphasis; and it’s a failing that a lot of English speaking countries seem to share.

And sure, thanks to the Colonial era Briton’s taking a “it’s mine, I saw it first” approach to globalisation, English is the global language with some estimates showing more than 1.5 billion people worldwide have at least some ability to communicate in English. But that isn’t going to stop me from attempting to speak even just polite phrases in every country I visit.

The Language Barrier

Very recently while traveling solo through Belgium, I had a number of interesting encounters with other travelers and quite a few locals, some of which were extremely disheartening and others, strangely enlightening. Recently I talked about some of these encounters when I discussed the stigma surrounding women travelling alone. But there was another encounter that shook me and upset me more than either of those, and it didn’t involve a man.

Instead it involved a tiny young French woman who shamed me for the simple crime of travelling in a country where I didn’t speak or understand the national language. After observing me walking around some church grounds for a few minutes, she made deliberate eye contact with me while lighting a cigarette. I gave a little smile but kept walking; I was just there to enjoy the scenery, not make small talk. She decided to take that away from me and jogged after me to fall in step beside me. She then immediately spoke to me in rapid Dutch, and looked at me expectantly for a reply. I smiled again and said “sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.” She shook her head and switched to French instead, another national language of Belgium. I shook my head and said “sorry, do you speak English?” She rolled her eyes at me and said “no, this is Belgium, you have to speak Dutch. When I’m home in France I speak French, when I’m in England I speak English, so here you speak Dutch or French.” She then gestured back at the church and repeated herself again in French.

Instead of calling her out on it, in my stunned and confused state, I gave an awkward little laugh and shrugged. Visibly angry, she then asked me in English what I was I was doing there. I told her I was just walking around and it was a beautiful church, but I had a bus I needed to catch so I was leaving. She then walked with me halfway up the street, asking me in English where I was from and what I was doing there. Maybe she realised she’d upset me, or maybe she hadn’t and just felt she’d already made her point because she didn’t push me again to try and understand her in another language.

Travelling is my Education

When she walked away, I was really taken aback, upset and lost; I had never personally encountered someone so smug and so angry about a language barrier – and it was one that she imposed upon us. The barrier can be frustrating yes, but I don’t ever think there is ever a reason to embarrass someone for their education. What’s more, in the European Union alone there are 24 official languages; around the world there are an estimated 6909 living languages. It’s narrow minded to expect someone to speak them all, or even worse, only visit places where they can speak the official language. This girl didn’t just expect me to be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or even ask where the bathroom is; she spoke to me in rapid fire French and Dutch and became angry when I couldn’t understand her.

My goal is to learn everything I can about the world and about other cultures, and of course this means that I experience and attempt to understand the language and the locals. However, if I was the kind of person who only visited places within my comfort zone – that is, countries that only spoke English – then I believe I’d personally feel less fulfilled. Travelling is a kind of education that you can’t get in schools, and I’m not going to miss out on that because school didn’t give me the right kind of education.

Travel is my education, and everywhere I go I'm learning something new

The Other Side of the Coin

English speaking people are of course, so incredibly guilty of this as well. I’ve observed people both at home and while travelling with other English speakers, who get angry at fellow travellers, tour guides or shopkeepers for not understanding their every word. In Rome, an American girl was asking our tour guide a question using a word the tour guide didn’t understand. Instead of trying a different word, the girl instead just kept repeating the word over and over in increasing volume. She then turned to her mother and said angrily “she doesn’t even understand English!”, as if this made our Italian tour guide an idiot.

In an increasingly global world, the likelihood of you encountering someone in your day to day life that is unable to communicate with you fluently in your own language is getting higher all the time. Whether they be a traveller, a migrant, a refugee or perhaps, just not as well educated as you, that person has something to learn from you and vice versa. Let that thing they learn be something good about you, about your country and about your language.

Don’t leave them feeling even more alone in the world than they already do.

photo by Harsh Jadav

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4 Comments

  1. May 11, 2017 / 11:16 pm

    I really really dislike people who are not willing to see that not everyone can speak the language they are speaking. I think both parties have to adjust a little bit. The travellers should at least learn a few phrases in the language of the country they are travelling to, and the locals should be understanding enough not to expect perfect language skills from tourists and travellers.

    • May 12, 2017 / 6:48 am

      I completely agree. If both sides are respectful and tolerant we all stand to learn a lot more from each other!

      • May 12, 2017 / 1:14 pm

        Yes! and another point that comes into consideration is that our school systems don’t train us to be tolerant. Instead of having classes like maths or economy, we should have classes like ethnicity or cultural communication. These are such important things that no one really cares about which leads to fear, ignorance, intolerance, and even hatred.

        • May 12, 2017 / 1:17 pm

          That’s such a good idea, I couldn’t agree more. Teach tolerance at a young age and watch them flourish when they’re out in the real world! What a lovely place the world would be

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