Category Archives: Language

Language Barrier or Bridge?

My previous post regarding discourteous behavior on the part of Americans who are traveling abroad touched upon the challenges encountered whilst visiting countries whose mother tongue differs from one’s own and how many Americans unfortunately handle the situation far too often. Challenges are just one way to label what others may call either a difficulty or, what I would like to view from this day forward, as an opportunity — in general, but in the here and now in the context of travel.

Are you intimidated to select a destination for your next destination on account of the fact that the national language spoken there is not English? Sure, English is the official language of a good many countries…. According to Wikipedia (ok, not the most accurate of all internet sources, but certainly a reasonably reliable one in many instances), English is an official language of 58 sovereign and 21 non-sovereign entities. For those selecting their next travel destination based upon English-friendly countries, click here  for Wikipedia’s list. English is clearly either the official language or at least the primary language of a good number of countries/entities, so travel destinations are relatively many and varied. According to most sources, the world consists of approximately 196 countries, so if English speakers choose to limit travels to only countries where they have a strong sense of comfort due to familiarity with the native tongue, they are still severely limiting themselves in the scope of their travel possibilities.

I’ve always relished the opportunity to expand my horizons and have found distinct pleasure in learning about and experiencing other cultures. While there certainly can be challenges when visiting foreign lands, I welcome those challenges as learning experiences. Again, as noted in my discussion of “Ugly Americanism,” it really doesn’t take much effort to research a small number of handy phrases in the language of your destination, such as “Where is the…” or “Good morning!” or a simple “Thank you.” It isn’t even necessary to memorize the phrases, as a little cheat sheet can do the trick. I’ve found being armed with this tiny tidbit of knowledge to be extremely helpful, empowering and even comforting while traveling abroad. Plus, showing just a wee bit of courtesy to locals fosters an immense amount of good will and opens the possibility to engage in interesting conversation, even if the spoken dialogue may be somewhat limited.

It’s never a bad thing to grasp an opportunity for an educational experience. During my travels, I’ve relished the times my son and I have had chatting with and being bestowed with the kindness of strangers. During my first visit to Croatia in 2009, my son, my friend Jen and I filled the remainder of our port stop in Dubrovnik with an impromptu taxi tour into the mountains above the walled city. At first, we thought we picked the wrong cab driver, since he seemed frightfully surly and unfriendly. But because Jen, Devan and I all can hold a conversation with a (reluctant) turnip, we eventually nudged our taxi guide into opening up to us. We discovered our driver’s name was Zeljko, and that even though we found out he had an excellent command of the English language due to prior visits to the U.S. on container ships on which he was a crew member, he was very insecure with his English skills. We assured him that his English by far surpassed our Croatian capabilities, and he truly seemed to later enjoy putting his language prowess to use.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro
That’s Bosnia? Yes, Jennifer.
Fort Imperial on Mount Srđ
Zeljko didn’t park here to find a place to bury our bodies.

As we drove higher into the mountains above the old city, we learned of Zeljko’s pride in his country as he shared his knowledge of the country’s difficult recent history. At the peak of the mountain, Zeljko parked the cab and got out without saying a word. Devan and I wondered if he was looking for somewhere to relieve himself, and Jen became somewhat alarmed when she asked what he was doing, and Devan surmised aloud that Zeljko was probably trying to figure out where to bury our bodies. In truth, he was just looking to see if the Museum of Croatian War of Independence at Fort Imperial atop Mount Srđ was open. It was, and Zeljko was kind enough to play private museum guide during our visit to the museum; the experience we had was enriched by his personal take on each artifact and photo he detailed for us and certainly wouldn’t have been the same had we not gotten Zeljko to warm up to us (even after Jennifer mistakenly referred to him as “Jerko” to his face). Zeljko did show his sense of humor when Jen expressed her shock that we were within a stone’s throw to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, as he returned her question with, “Lady, have you ever seen a map?” Zeljko’s language skills were far superior than he had given himself credit for, as his abilities even allowed for a tad of sarcasm! It made me wonder how many visitors on his taxi tours never got the chance to draw Zeljko’s personality out…or possibly more accurately how many tourists’ behavior led him to internalize his kindness and willingness to share his wealth of knowledge and life experience. What a shame.

Museum of Croatian War of Independence, Dubrovnik
Devan in the War Museum
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Devan with Zeljko who wasn’t a Jerko (even though he does look a bit surly)

I was happy that the one word I learned by rote prior to my arrival in Croatia was “hvala.”





Americans Really CAN Be Ugly

On a literal level, I suppose the title of this post merely states the obvious. However, I’ve witnessed firsthand too many times the reason why the pejorative terminology “ugly American” came into being. It boggles my mind and sensibilities as to how visitors to a country and culture foreign to their own arrive with expectations that their destination should closely resemble that of their place of comfort back home and that the residents of said destination should speak their language or readily understand customs of the visitor’s place of origin. With that expectation, it belies common rationale for undertaking a trip to a foreign destination in the first place.

Have you ever heard a fellow traveler overseas exclaim with indignation, “Nobody here speaks English!” My goodness, what a shock, given that you’re in Spain or Estonia! It irritates me to no end when visitors to South Florida (or worse yet, long time residents of SFL, but that’s an entirely different issue!) ramble to or at me rapid fire en español on account of the fact that I have a light tan and dark hair. While I may very well understand 91.5% of the gist of what they are saying, I tend to return a vacant gaze and a response formulated in my remedial German. When they return my glazed stare as if I have three heads, I calmly explain that I thought it was “Pick A Language Day” wherein they chose Spanish and I chose (grammatically incorrect) German.

Since I become quickly annoyed at such rude, presumptive behavior, I would readily expect inhabitants of non-English speaking countries to possess a similar attitude when Americans wrongfully presume that everyone should speak English. How many times have the French, or Parisians in particular, gotten a bum rap as being arrogant and rude? Well, frequently those who label the Parisian locals as being impolite approached them with a question or statement in English (oftentimes with an arrogant air), without so much as prefacing their inquiry with, “I’m sorry I don’t speak French….” Whether that introduction be in English or French, at least one is not making the automatic assumption that a Parisian ought to speak English just because the American traveler does.

Horseback riding in Germany
We managed to make riding reservations in German!

When traveling to foreign locales, part of my pre-trip preparation is to ensure that I either learn in advance or bring along with me a few handy phrases in the tongue indigenous to my destination country(ies). Practically universally, I’ve encountered nothing but polite treatment by locals, oftentimes with a smile and reply to my poorly pronounced attempt at pleasantries in the native language ensuring me that I don’t need to butcher their language further since he or she speaks English quite well. When locals don’t speak English, they typically will play along with my pantomime and my limited knowledge of their language with a helpful willingness to answer my question or accomplish my purchase.

My dad led by example during travels of my youth. Even though he didn’t speak any language besides English, he never failed to make friends while traveling in Europe or elsewhere and somehow managed to communicate with locals, even if he had to play a game of charades or draw pictures on a paper place mat in a restaurant.

Skateboarding with locals in Barcelona
My son made friends in Barcelona with a simple “hola.”

Of course, in America or points beyond, grumpy, unfriendly people exist everywhere, and at some juncture we are all going to encounter them.


But, just like in life in general, The Golden Rule applies to travel. Give it a try. It works.