English is currently the most widely used language of business, commerce, and the Internet- and it’s the primary secondary language learned in most countries. It’s any wonder that many Americans leave the US thinking that, no matter where they go, they will be able to find someone who speaks English.
Ever heard the term “ugly American”? Take one guess where it comes from.
Here’s a quick guide to learning a language quickly before you depart, including what phrases to learn, how to study a language, and what your best resources are.
I was amazed when I flew into Athens, Greece and found that nearly everyone in the business districts knew English nearly as well as they knew Greek- which was really helpful for people like me who didn’t know more Greek than “parakalo” (please) and “efcharisto” (thank you). It was a bit more challenging outside of the big cities, but most people who worked with tourists knew English. Even if they knew English, I tried to at least say hello and goodbye in Greek out of respect for their culture.
When my mom and I hopped on a train back from Lake Como to Milan a few days later, I realized how high the language barrier can be- we managed to strike up a conversation with two Italian ladies through our broken attempts at English/Spanish/Italian. We passed an English-Italian translation guide back and forth to explain where we were from, where we were going, where I worked, and where we needed to get off the train (which came in handy when they told us we almost missed our stop).
Did I understand half of what the ladies said in a flurry of Italian and Spanish? Nope.
Did I feel like an ignorant American for not knowing hardly any of their language in their country? Absolutely.
Did I have one of the coolest conversations in my life, despite huge language barriers? Absolutely.
Will I ever go back to Italy without some understanding of Italian AND my English-Italian dictionary? Absolutely not.
Here’s what you need to know to help you when you visit a non-English speaking country.
It is very likely in this day and age that people who work with tourists on a daily basis will know English, especially in European countries.
Many countries, including Greece, require students to learn a second language, especially if they work in a tourist industry. Many times these students choose English because it is such a widely-spoken language.
Do not take advantage of this convenience. You should appreciate it, but do not take it for granted. You should not expect that any person you talk to in any city in the country will speak English just because you do.
There are 7 phrases you should know in any language to get by: Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes, no, and bathroom.
If you do not know any of these, you might not survive- or you may really have to hold it until you find someone who speaks English. Keep in mind that many countries will name the bathroom as the “WC” (water closet), even if they don’t speak English.
There are tons of language resources at your fingertips.
If you have time to learn a language and want to learn it in depth, consider Rosetta Stone. It isn’t cheap, but they have a great reputation for teaching languages well and helping you retain the language past the moment you walk away from the computer.
Short on time and budget? Try Duolingo, a free language instruction course option. Duolingo offers courses in Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese. Duolingo teaches you the language through writing, reading, listening, and speaking of words and phrases you’ll actually use and emphasizes repetition so you remember what you’re learning. You can even put it on your phone- and Duolingo was voted App of the Year by Apple and Best of the Best by Google Play last year!
For a quicker glance at a language, Fodor’s offers a Language for Travelers series that allows you to listen and hear over 150 words and phrases from key travel categories in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese.
Take your resources with you.
If you aren’t familiar with the language at all, seriously consider purchasing a phrase book that includes a dictionary. I swear by Rick Steves’ Phrasebooks/Dictionaries – his Italian Phrasebook/Dictionary saved me in Italy! Don’t forget that passing a book between 2 people and pointing when you can’t pronounce something does work!
Keep in mind, if you’re going to several places in a single trip, make sure your books aren’t weighing your luggage down. Aim for combination language books if you can (Rick Steves offers a French/Italian/German phrase book that isn’t much bigger than a single-language phrase book).
Are you taking your smartphone on the trip? Get the free Google Translate app in case you get stuck and can’t find the words to ask a local for help. Just remember that Google Translate is very literal and might get you caught up in some miscommunications- use it as a last resort only!
Remember: You don’t need to know it all – making the effort really is what matters.
Even people who have studied a language for years make mistakes in languages when there are intricacies and cultural things they’ve never learned before. You are much more likely to be judged for walking around expecting everyone to speak English than if you make an attempt in the local language and can’t communicate 100% effectively.
No one expects all tourists/travelers to be fluent in all foreign languages. Making the effort shows that you respect the local people and their culture and are trying to learn it, not impose the idea that everyone speaks English, just because you do.
Travel is easier and more fun when you understand the language and can communicate with locals. Learning their language also helps you better understand their culture. Learn at least a little bit of the language and turn your trip into a cultural learning experience- it’s about learning, respect, and making an effort.
Don’t be an ugly American.