There are so many self-serve shops where you don’t even have to have contact with a cashier. There are so many local shops led by people from around the world – Polish shops, Romanian shops, Chinese, Japanese – whatever you wish really. If you don’t know the language you can still easily secure basic needs. Where it gets tricky here in the UK is all the paperwork – apartment, National Insurance Number, bank account… I imagine it can be quite hard to deal with in any country in the world if you don’t know the language. You are also then an easier target for people or institutions who want to trick you, eg. charge you more than the usual rate.
Does knowing the language add much more value to your stay in a foreign country?
I would say it depends on the purpose of your stay abroad. Let’s consider the following situation as an example. A student who knows English quite fluently decides to go to Colombia to do some volunteering for a year. She is going to be working with people who know some English, are able to communicate in this language. However apart from these volunteers she will also meet many locals who are usually not very fluent in that language. She really wants to have a deep international experience, get close with the locals and learn about the place she will spend a year in. She doesn’t know any Spanish though, only some basic expressions.
In that scenario I think that she will for sure be able to communicate with people, she will get the grasp of the basic Spanish and most probably she will be able to communicate in Spanish pretty well after this year if she exposes herself enough to the language. I’m wondering however if her expectations about experiencing the deep culture will not be too big. My point is that while you can learn the words in a certain language and while you can communicate with others in English, it’s hard to really feel the local culture and understand it without understanding the local language. In some countries it also makes it much harder to get in close relations with people too.
It is so limiting not to understand what other people are saying around you, especially if they are not able to express these same thoughts in English. Take the common example of Icelandic language, where there is a number of words related to ‘snow’. Same with the number of expressions for rain in the UK. Or words connected with water in Sanskrit. You don’t really need all these words in some other parts of the world. You can only understand the meaning and the minor differences in these words if you are in a given place, in a certain environment and if you already have a feel for the local language.
This is a flow of some random thoughts floating in my head for a while, but my point is that it is easy to be abroad and simply communicate in a common language (mostly English nowadays). The deep cross-cultural experience however begins when you start paying attention to these minor differences, when you start to get a feel for the local customs and language and when you start engaging with the locals on numerous occasions.
Knowing the language can very often be the gate that lets you into the real local life…