I have been travelling quite a lot over the past couple of months. I’ve been mostly to countries where I don’t know the local language at all. Turkey, Austria, Italy, France, UK and my home country Poland. These were not long trips, just work or short holiday, but made me think about the language fluency in an international context. The feeling of inclusion can make a great difference here.
Here is some context about the places I visited and my language skills:
When I was in Turkey I fully relied on my friends who were hosting me. One of them is Turkish and the other speaks Turkish language very well. I knew I had nothing to worry about when it came to ordering food, moving around the cities, talking to the locals, sightseeing. This whole time however I thought “how on Earth I would be able to deal with all these cultural subtleties by myself?”. I’d feel insecure. Turkish language sounds to me like a mixture of several other languages that I’m familiar with, but at the same time there is really a very slim chance for me to understand it as it seems to be so distant from the languages I know. It was therefore quite a challenge to repeat the phrases they were trying to teach me! Not even mentioning my understanding of Turkish culture where there’s still so much to find out.
Austria. German language. I don’t know German at all, just a few words or phrases that I learnt from my colleagues. The language though has some similarities with English and as I’ve been hearing it around more often, it seemed easier to grasp or repeat some phrases. But again, it felt weird not to understand a word from the adverts around the city, signs or posters in hotels, not even mentioning the hotel staff or German colleagues (who were present there) speaking with each other.
Sardinia, Italy. This was slightly easier already, slightly more familiar, as I know some French and there are many everyday words that sound similar in Italian. There was one situation at the restaurant however that I’d like to share. We were served by a very nice waiter, speaking relatively good English. We ordered our meals and that was basically all our communication with this guy. In a table next to us there was an Italian family. The waiter spend time talking to them, explaining in more detail what kind of fish they have, joking. At that time I sooo wanted to know what exactly am I missing out on! And felt we didn’t have the same experience of this very nice service as we potentially could have if we knew the language.
Corsica, France. Although I’m not really fluent in French I can understand quite a lot and find my way in everyday tourist situations. My stay on Corsica therefore felt really good, I felt like I can actually make a better connection with people, staff at the hotels or in restaurants was more open and eager to talk. It was still a mixture of French, English and sign language to communicate, but it f e l t better.
UK, where I currently live. Being fluent in English makes the whole living here a lot easier! Faster adaptation, better connection with people, being able to grasp the nuances of most jokes or slang phrases, not feeling like a total stranger. It’s not perfect at all, it still requires work and continuous learning. The point is though that there are basically no limitations to everyday communication at work and in social situations.
Poland. No problem at all, it’s my native country and language, full confidence, gets the jokes, nuances of the language, context, culture, everything. Feels like home.
You’re missing out!
Why am I writing all this? Because I wanted to show you my example of how knowing the local language can make a difference in your cross-cultural communication. If you know the local language, you can feel confident that you will get what you want, that you will find your way around. Otherwise you need to rely on the sign language and probably English as well. You’ll then miss out on many local things that you could possibly see guided by the locals. You are losing a chance to learn more about the country you’re in. You just have a more touristy experience rather than a real-life one. That’s how most of my holidays looked like too to be honest. Moving to England made me realize that I really want to adapt and understand the culture to feel more like home, rather than like a temporary immigrant, a stranger.
What to do if you can’t learn all the languages in the world?
Obviously, we can’t speak all the existing languages, which makes it problematic. Oh how I wish I could! Do you remember this guy I mentioned in one of the previous Cultural Reads that speaks 11 languages? His understanding of cultures, language subtleties and general world knowledge is most probably really extensive thanks to that. Knowing that many languages also increases his chances that the person he meets will speak one of them which would of course make it easier to communicate. The people who you can find a common language with are more likely to help you, more likely to show you around, more likely to build friendships with.
The answer I got to so far is: learn some basic words and phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting. Wherever you’re going, study some basic phrase book! In most countries people will appreciate the effort and will be more likely to interact with you. It sound like a basic thing, but from my experience many people still rely very heavily on English, wherever they go, assuming the locals should be speaking it as well. And this might be tricky when you go to a country where English is not widely spoken – surprise surprise!
I must say though that I often catch myself thinking that as well. Especially when it comes to hotels and accommodation I feel frustrated when someone I booked a place with advertises on an international website, then calls you about your reservation and doesn’t speak a word in English! Getting to an agreement on the phone without knowing the language is then reeeeallyyy hard…
What about business?
Do the same rules apply? Well, yes and no. I guess that if you do business together you already have some common language, possibly English. What you can still do when going abroad is learn a couple of phrases in your partner’s language to start a small talk, it will for sure be appreciated. You can definitely also read about local customs to make yourself more at ease. If your partner will do the same for you, you will have a better chance to reach a cross-cultural compromise and work well together.
I’m still struggling to decide whether it’s really worth learning as many languages as possible. At the moment after all these trips I feel like it’s too big of a challenge… Getting to the level of understanding the subtleties of the foreign languages takes years and years of practice and talking to natives. Same with understanding culture. What you should learn with languages however is some basics, wherever you’re going, as it might help you have an easier, more pleasant, more ‘local’ experience abroad. I feel like teaching each other various phrases in the local language is also a great conversation starter and I absolutely love all these hours I spent trying to pronounce various difficult words or practicing Polish pronunciation with foreigners 🙂
What do you think? Is English enough? Is it worth learning multiple languages? What are your experiences with it impacting communication?