I decided to start a new series entitled “travel tacky” in which I’ll write about topics I consider to be tacky in the world of travel. Agree, disagree, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Out of the almost 20 countries I have visited, in six of them I did not speak the language (yes it helps when your total country count includes a lot of Spanish speaking countries and you happen to be almost fluent in said language). South Korea was obviously the most difficult for me. Although I encountered many people (usually at tourist facilities) that spoke some English, as I was living there as a student and not just staying there as a tourist, I came across many individuals that did not. This resulted in me pointing a lot or having to ask multiple people until I found someone that spoke some English.
Morocco could have been tough but since I was there for such a short time paired, with being part of a group, it wasn’t bad at all. In Belgium even though the official languages are Flemish and French, English is also widely spoken. In fact some of the locals I met spoke better English than many native English speakers. Thanks to the year of Italian I took in high school and also that much of the vocabulary is extremely similar to Spanish, I did okay when in Italy. After English and Spanish, French is my next go to language. I had a couple of semesters of it in college and am what one would call proficient.
My trip to Portugal was the first time since Korea where I felt a bit lost language wise. Although in regards to reading Spanish and Portuguese look remarkably similar, with hearing, they might as well be two languages on opposite ends of the spectrum. Muddling through some encounters, I guess enough of my Spanish made sense to the Portuguese people, but then there were times where I felt really lost and wished I knew some Portuguese. But never once in Portugal or in any other country was I peeved or surprised that someone didn’t speak my native language.
Part of being respectful of a country and its culture includes being respectful of the local language. Although English speakers have it quite nice being able to travel to most parts of the world and find someone that speaks their language due to its universal growth and appeal, that is not always the case. So I immensely dislike when people complain “there really wasn’t a lot of English spoken.” Unless you are traveling to an English speaking country, you should never expect that, especially if you are traveling in a more rural part of the country or are visiting a small, perhaps obscure tourist attraction (i.e. not the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum).
Someone that speaks Urdu would probably not be able to find a random person on the street that spoke Urdu when needing help, or a waitress in a restaurant here in the United States, so why should we not expect the same while traveling abroad? I hope to visit Southeast Asia in the next couple of years and while I’ve read that some of the elderly in those countries still speak some French (a leftover from their days as former French colonies), I certainly wouldn’t expect to be able to use French or English when there.
Language barriers are one of the toughest parts of travel, but don’t come annoyed or hating on a country because someone there didn’t speak your native tongue.