“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being” – trevor.noah
When Amanda and I were in Portugal, a woman at our hostel asked us, in Portuguese, if we spoke Portuguese. We responded, in English, that we did not. Amanda asked if she spoke Italian; she did not. She asked if we spoke French; neither of us do. I asked if she spoke Spanish; she did not. We parted with friendly smiles and well-meaning intentions, but did not speak to each other again. We had all made an effort, but despite each of us having some level of proficiency in two different languages, we did not share a common one in which we could connect.
Aside from Spain, I have only been in countries where I do not know the language (Portugal, France, Switzerland, Italy). However, this first interaction has turned out to be more of the exception than the rule. Whether I want it to be or not, I have found English to be a constant presence. There are English songs on the radio. Menus and signs are often written in English in addition to the native language (and sometimes a third or fourth language too); people in stores and restaurants and hostels and hotels speak English, as do random people encountered on the street. Even in Spain, where I was so excited to be able to use and practice my Spanish, I found that most of the time when I spoke to people in Spanish, they would just start speaking to me in English. They could tell it was my native language and it was clear that their English was better than my Spanish.
Overall, people from non-English speaking countries are far better at knowing multiple languages and far more accommodating to other languages than are native English speakers. This lack of language does not just apply to those from the United States–it is also true of those from Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand…basically any major, majority English speaking country. I have spoken with other travelers from some of these other English speaking countries and confirmed this. We seemed to agree that it is embarrassing that for the most part, native English speakers do not know, or make an effort to know, other languages. Even worse, no one is surprised by this and no one expects us to.
One night when sharing a room with a woman from Argentina, she and I began to speak. She knew some degree of English and I knew some degree of Spanish, neither of us were entirely fluent in the second language. I tried to speak to her in Spanish instead of in English and we did for a little bit. Then our third roommate–a woman from Germany–returned and joined the conversation. We switched to English because despite being from different countries with their own different languages, both women were able to speak it. The same was true when I shared a room with a woman from China and a woman from Holland. We did not speak Chinese or Dutch; we spoke English. When travelers from Japan or Germany are in Italy and they don’t know Italian, they do not ask the waiter for a Japanese or German menu; they ask for an English one. English, at least in my travels in Europe, seems to be the most common language among speakers of other languages. People in all different countries learn English and with this, they can speak to each other even when they do not share a native language. Native English speakers have the privilege of simply sitting back and benefitting from the dedicated work of language-learning that others have put in.
None of this is a surprise. Language has always been an important part of colonization and of control. Imperial Britain colonized the world and made its inhabitants learn English (as did the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French with their own languages in their own colonies). Economic and political super-power United States controls a lot of money, research, and business (as does the UK), and it controls it using English. English speaking countries have gained and maintained power in various ways throughout history and have then demanded that anyone who might like to discuss it or to share in it do so in English. This began within the borders of their own countries or colonies, but with growth in globalization, international trade, travel, the media, and the internet, the demand that people speak our language in order to play with us has spread even further.
Now, business people and politicians and bankers and academics all over the world have English in their language toolkit. So do waiters and taxi drivers and concierges and street performers. This is not a two way street. Even when in a different country, those who are native English speakers have the privilege of moving through the world, just expecting other people to speak their language. I have, on multiple occasions, overheard an older British couple at a restaurant or a group of young Americans in a store become angry or frustrated by the fact that the person they are trying to communicate with does not speak English. They never seem to consider the fact that the actual problem in miscommunication is due to the fact that they do not speak French (or Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, etc.).
I do not expect anybody that I interact with to speak English, even though most have so far. I make sure to know some important words in the language of the country I am in (please, thank you, hello, check, bathroom, exit, which way, how much, goodbye); I look things up on Google translate; when in Spain, I mostly only spoke in Spanish. I make an effort and I try to be as prepared as I can be. When I encounter a miscommunication or someone who is not able to help me, I still thank them and I understand; I am the one who is traveling in a country where I do not speak the language. None of this impressive. In fact, it is really just the bare minimum. Nobody is under any obligation to speak the same language that I do.
There are a lot of languages in the world. The ones I have mentioned here are all colonizing languages and fairly widespread in their own right. There are so many more which we not only fail to learn, but also fail to even really acknowledge (not to mention those that we have essentially erased). Languages are about communicating, but they are also about identity, they are about community, they are about history. It is nice when you are able to share a language with someone and are able to communicate with them, but we should not expect that our ground must be the common one. And at the end of the day, even when we do not share a language we can share a moment. We can still express gratitude and kindness; we can still share our humanity. Decency and effort are a shared language we can all appreciate.