There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, but when I’m traveling I expect everyone to speak just one.
The language of both the British Empire and of Hollywood. The language spoken by all pilots by law. The most popular language on that thing called the Internet. The language of money and of power. It’s not the most spoken language in the world, it’s not even in second place, but it’s the language of the loud and proud US of A. The lingua franca: English.
As travelers, speaking English is one of the most valuable tools we have at our disposal—the Swiss Army knife of languages. English translations on signs, in brochures and in menus are far from uncommon. Most anywhere you go you can find someone who can communicate with you on a basic level in English—you can get from point A to point B or order your dinner without a lick of the local language. As American travelers, we rely heavily on our English and there’s no problem with that.
Most travelers do. Say a Guatemalan meets a Filipino while traveling in Germany, in all likelihood, they’ll converse in English while sharing a few steins of hefeweizen at the bar down the street from their hostel. They’ll order these beers in English from a German bartender and end the night with some sausages—also ordered in English.
It would be pointless and highly impractical to learn the local language of every country you wish to travel to. Generally speaking, English is all you need.
For the aforementioned reasons, language wasn’t something I thought much of during my trip to Thailand this past year.
When I landed in Bangkok, I didn’t know a single Thai word. Luckily, some kind locals along the way entertained my curiosity and taught me how to say “thank you” and “cheers” in Thai.
As a general rule, I always learn these two words. But they serve no utility beyond making me look polite and giving me an excuse to clink beer bottles, wine glasses and the like.
Of course, with the speaking proficiency of a 10-month-old Thai alcoholic, there were a few things lost in translation.
There was the time, for example, I went to the bathroom in Ayutthaya. I walked up to the man tending the restroom and handed him a few baht. In exchange, he handed me a flimsy square of pink paper and pointed at my shoes. After a bit of back and forth, he speaking Thai and me speaking a slow, confused English, I concluded I needed to wipe off the bottom of my shoes and proceed into the stall.
But once I sat down on the toilet it clicked.
I was left with clean shoes, an angry Thai bathroom tender and one dirty piece of pink toilet paper. Both my English and common sense had failed me.
More recently, I traveled to Stockholm. Again, I faced very few language barriers and the few I did encounter were no worse than laughable.
But on this trip, I ran into a unique dilemma. My blonde hair, blue eyes and the fact that I conveniently wore what seemed to be the Swedish uniform for girls in their 20s—all black with a jean jacket and sneakers—tricked locals into thinking I was one of their own. Traveling with my friend who is also blonde, only added to the façade.
Employees at the hotel as well as the restaurants, bars and coffee shops we walked into all sang to us their Swedish greeting: “Hej hej.”
Each time we awkwardly stumbled over our words as we broke the news to them and asked if they spoke English. Of course, they all did. They would smile and shake their head, as if to turn one language off and the other on, then proceed in perfect Western, Netflix-watching English.
With the ‘American tourist’ stamp across my forehead cloaked by my blonde hair, I could walk around feeling just as safe and comfortable as the Swedish girl who rents an apartment in Södermalm and drinks aquavit at the local bar.
Forget Airbnb, this is how you travel like a local.
But as soon as we opened our mouths, we might as well have been wearing NASCAR hats with bald eagles perched on our shoulders while drinking Budweisers. So, we would wander the streets not speaking a word enjoying everyone’s blissful ignorance of the fact that they were in the presence of tourists.
Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of looking the part—nor would we want that. Meeting people different than us is part of the reason we have this monkey on our back, this manic desire to spend all of our money to go new places.
In fact, it was this very addiction that drove me to study in Cuernavaca, Mexico for a summer in college.
Just like in Thailand, in Mexico, I did not look the part. However this time, I spoke the part.
I was far from fluent. But much to the credit of my amazing teachers and professors, I was conversational.
With these skills, I avoided being duped by taxis drivers and street vendors. But more importantly, these skills allowed me to connect to the warm, spirited, hospitable people of Mexico.
Like so many foreigners have done for me, I used my second language to speak to my host family and locals around town. And although some of them could speak English, I chose to speak to them in Spanish. Although we were strangers, each party had to put effort into the fleeting relationship. I had to hastily translate words and conjugate foreign verbs while they had to slow down and help me through the conversation. This mutual effort created an instant bond.
While speaking Spanish, I learned about the difficultly and corruption those hoping to open a business face—a struggle my host mom knew all too well. I learned about their election process and how to salsa and where to find the best tamales in town. Yes, English would have gotten me around just fine, but without Spanish I wouldn’t know and love Cuernavaca the way I do today.
And although I’m grateful for the way speaking Spanish seemingly broke down an inane wall between me and Mexico, the likelihood of me learning another language is slim. As much as I would like to, the fact is it’s extremely difficult and I’m really not good at learning new languages.
Luckily for me, as a traveler, learning a second language beyond English isn’t necessary—but then again, if I had known some Thai, I wouldn’t have had to drip dry.