Episode 80 – The Language Barrier

Guten Tag. Es freut mich Sie kennen zu lernen. Ich heiße Rose, und mein Mann heißt Ed.

Buenas Días. Tengo el placer de conocerte. Me llamo Rosa y mi esposo sé llama Eduardo.

Bonjour. Je suis heureux de faire votre connaissance. Je m’appelle Rose, et mon mari s’appelle Edouard.

Hello. I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Rose, and this is my husband Ed.

Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

Sometimes I feel a bit like the emcee in Cabaret…. when it comes to language, at any rate. I can speak enough of a couple of foreign languages to be friendly, but not enough to carry on all of our day to day activities comfortably.

We had intended (pre-COVID19) to head to Europe this fall for an extended period of time, beginning in Portugal, followed by Germany, Spain, Cyprus, a quick sojourn in England, and then on to explore Poland … so the challenges of communicating in foreign countries was on my mind this spring.

The problem with assuming that English is understood everywhere is that the assumption is generally made by English speakers, and is largely based on the corporate world.

It’s true that, in major tourist destinations, hospitality and travel industry staff will generally understand and speak English because it is in their interest to do so, but off the beaten track it is not ubiquitous. In Germany, English is taught as a compulsory second language in school, so most people under 60 years old speak and understand it surprisingly well. That’s not necessarily the case all over Europe, let alone all over the world, and definitely not in more rural areas where tourism and multi-national companies are not major factors. Countries that in the past were colonized by England are more likely to have held onto that language (think India) but Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and the Netherlands were also explorers, conquerors and colonizers, so those languages can be found all over the world (Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, Dutch in South Africa, French in Morocco and Niger, German in Czechoslovakia and Denmark).

Friends who have travelled far more widely than we have all confirmed that, in every country, despite generally being able to make themselves understood in English supplemented with hand signals, visitors who know at least a few words of one of the native languages will find that the local residents are far more willing to try to understand their requests than if they had just barrelled through in English.

As with so many things, technology makes this so much easier. Google Translate is a godsend, and has improved SO much in the past couple of years as it “learned” from users. I remember a time not THAT long ago when translations could be hilarious. Does anyone else remember Monty Python’s “Hungarian phrasebook” sketch?

Language in a foreign country is also about attitude. “I’m sorry”, “excuse me”, “please” and “thank you” make a huge difference in how we are perceived by others, and absolutely cannot be overused. Thankfully, they are second nature to most Canadians, and apps like Mango (my current favourite for languages) make learning those phrases in other languages easy.

I’d intended to get a head start on improving my German by signing up for group lessons while we were in San Antonio this spring, but COVID brought that to a premature end too. I’m not ambitious enough to try to learn Chinese, Russian or Hungarian, but I am going to work on learning Spanish and upgrading my rusty high school French. Hopefully we’ll get by on that. I have a lot more time now to do it than I’d originally expected, so I just need to hunker down and really persevere. I admit to not feeling very motivated these past few weeks, but I know that even a bit of good news about a vaccine will reenergize my travel bug. Stay tuned!


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