Magazine topic: 
Life around the world

Not speaking the language

by : 
EmilyW

I have spent most of my life surrounded by people who speak the same language as me. English is my native language, so I can usually guarantee that someone will be able to communicate with me in words I understand. My second language, French, has been very useful for my year abroad. Often, when travelling around the tiny towns in the south of France, people have very limited English. I don't mind at all: firstly, I like to practice my French (it is the whole reason I'm in France!) and secondly, I think it's rude to expect other people to speak your language when you visit their country.

So overall I've been very lucky. I love languages, so I also chose to take Spanish classes at school, which is another global language. Once I had a good level of both French and Spanish, Italian was quite easy to pick up. Even when visiting a friend in Romania, I could understand a few words and phrases because Romanian is a Latin-based language that has a lot of the same grammar and vocabulary base as other Romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian.

Because of this, I have often been very dismissive of tourists who do not speak even one word of the local language. I watched two girls in Nice try to order ice cream in English and rolled my eyes. “Couldn't they at least learn please, thank you and the numbers?” I asked myself, “Is it that hard to say 'Une vanille, un chocolat'?”

However, I had to eat humble pie just a few days later. This is an English expression that means I had to admit I was wrong. My friend and I went to Berlin for five days over our half-term holiday, and I finally realised how hard it is to not speak the language. I had always been lucky to understand Romance languages because they are all fairly similar – but German was completely new to me. The ticket machines at the airport didn't have an 'English language' option, and we didn't have internet on our phones to look up any words. Eventually, a German man took pity on us and showed us how to buy a ticket to our destination. A few days later, we were looking for a museum in East Berlin that was in quite a residential area – no tourists to be found. After wandering around for an hour, we finally admitted we were lost and headed to a newsagents, where we were given directions in very fast German that neither of us understood.

I learned a lesson in Berlin. I finally understand how difficult it is to be in a foreign country with no understanding of what the people around you are saying! I now have much more sympathy for tourists who visit my town in France and struggle with everything from asking directions to ordering food – although I still think learning some basic words is a good idea! 

Discussion

Have you ever been to a country where you didn't speak one word of the local language?