Steve and I are pictured above with English language students in Strasbourg, France.
There is nothing like foreign travel to make you examine your beliefs. It used to annoy me when businesses offered a Spanish option on their phone menu. I was even more annoyed when they asked me to press one for English. I felt like many Americans. Why should I have to press anything? English is our language. If people want to live here they should speak English.
A Happy Surprise
Then Steve and I spent eight months in Europe and much to our surprise English was everywhere. From large cities like Barcelona and Paris, to the Bulgarian cities of Plovdiv and Byala, many people, especially those in the tourist and service industries, spoke English.
It was good thing too because being able to communicate in the language of each country we visited would have required us to learn six different languages.
Even though English was virtually everywhere we made sure to learn and use basic words like hello, please, and thank you.
What surprised us the most was how well many of the Uber drivers spoke English. I’m not talking about the basics here. Many were able to hold intelligent conversations about politics and travel in English. This made me wonder how many people in the U.S. can converse intelligently in a foreign language. So I Googled it.
According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 25% of Americans can speak a foreign language compared to 66% of residents of the European Union.
Common travel advice is to learn to say “hello” and “do you speak English?” in the language of the country you are visiting. If the person replies that they do you can switch to English. We found this quite unnecessary. Apparently we look American. Quite often clerks and waiters would begin speaking English to us before we Even said hello. Almost every restaurant we visited either had English on its menu or a separate menu in English. These would often be handed to us before we said a word.
One place where we really appreciated an English option was with SIM cards. These have been the bane of our existence, with sometimes sporadic coverage and confusion on our part on how to make outgoing calls. Although one company that claimed to offer English phone support, but chose to tell us this option in very quickly spoken Spanish, did nothing but add to our frustration. Even with the easy to work with companies we still struggled a little, but is anything related to phone plans ever easy?
Other times we were thankful to see or hear English were in museums, grocery stores, and pharmacies. We were especially thankful for the strangers who stepped in to help us communicate, often without being asked
The Tables Have Turned
Our second year of travel has taken us to Latin America where English as a second language is far less common. Even in tourist areas we have had to rely on Google Translate to communicate.
Since we plan to spend 10 months in Latin America I have started learning Spanish through Rosetta Stone. It’s slow going, but also great to be able to communicate on a very rudimentary level in the local language.
Food for Thought
The fact that English is so prevalent in European counties makes me wonder what those of us in the U.S. are afraid of. From what I can see, being multilingual and offering services and menus in multiple languages hasn’t hurt our European friends at all. The more people you can communicate with the richer your life will be.
I do think if someone chooses to live in a foreign country he should make every effort to learn the local language. But a little help along the way benefits those learning English. And don’t forget, not everyone who is in the U.S. and doesn’t speak English is planning to stay. Some are tourists like us!