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Ask Siggi: Is English Enough?

September 11, 2017

I get this question so often and I can't help but think-really, you ask me this? What kind of answer do you think you're going to get from me? Out of all people!? Maybe they just don't like surprises.

If you are traveling abroad where English is not the first language, then English is not enough! 

Blah, blah, blah, English is the new lingua franca. Blah, blah, blah, they learn English in Sweden/Germany/France/Wherever so I'll just use that. Everyone speaks at least a bit of English so I don't need to worry too much about learning the local language.

Okay now say all of that out loud. See how presumptuous that is? Sure, English is becoming a language that many people have in common. And yes, many people learn English in school. But really, are you going to go to Germany and expect that everyone will accommodate you and speak English? You decide to go somewhere and put others in the position of servicing you? I'm sorry but YUCK.

I am in Sweden as I write this and their English is far better than my Swedish is, I will be honest. BUT-that isn't their language. That isn't the language they speak or think in. My family here in Sweden can speak fairly good English but they still struggle and are still self-conscious. Why put your hosts in that position when you can just do a bit of studying to make everyone more comfortable? 

It is incredibly rude to travel abroad to a foreign country and assume that they will speak English just for you. You chose to go to this country. Learn the damn language, even if it is only a few sentences. Approach the people in their language. ASK them if they speak English before you assume. Some people (like me) need to push a little switch in my brain to change languages. Let them know before you expect everyone to adjust.

Remember you took high school Spanish however many years ago? Maybe you remember "gracias" and "denada". You might be super nervous about using your second language .People abroad are too!

The map below shows the percentage of the population in several European countries who can hold a conversation in English. This is self reported and based on one's own confidence in the English language. It isn't great, is it? 


Here is an idea of how well you'll be understood around the world using only English. This study was done by Education First, a Finnish company that is the world leader in international education.


Need more reasons??? You got it.

Public transportation will be in the native language

Sure, some places may offer it in first the native language and then again in English. But not all places and even countries that do, don't do it all the time. When I was in Sweden the busses and bus drivers did not offer any translations in Swedish but at the train station translations were repeated. So unless you're comfortable not understanding what stop is next or if the driver is alerting you that you will be four hours late because of a dragon in the roadway, learn the damn language.

A lot of times, you may have your stop written out or on your Google Maps but you may find that the pronunciation differs completely from the spelling of your stop!

Checking out at the cash register

In the US we started using automatic self check out and I love it because I am a very awkward human but I have yet to see this abroad. I'm sure it is somewhere but I tend to go to smaller stores (because I am an awkward human).

When you check out at the grocery store or while you're shopping, the clerk will ask you something. Sometimes they ask-"is there anything else for you?" or "did you find everything?" or "do you need a bag?" or "are you paying with cash or card?". You can do that "I have no idea what you are saying" smile and nod but that could potentially mean something unexpected or not mean anything at all. Also, beware that many places require you to pay for your bag at the grocery store. The awkward "hehe?" nod won't always cut it.

Emergency announcements or services will be delivered in native language

I hate that I have to put this here but I mean, there have been a lot of terrorist attacks and violence around the world. If something were to happen, the police or special forces will alert others in the country's language because they know it will reach the biggest majority of people. They won't yell warnings in Portuguese if you're in China and there happens to be some kind of public emergency.

Ordering food at a cafe/restaurant/etc

Not knowing a lick of the local language is super awkward when you're in line at a cafe or bakery and have to do the looky-pointy game and pray they understand Neanderthal gestures.

Ordering at a sit down restaurant off a menu wouldn't be as awkward but you may find that in parts of Europe the waiter will pretty much leave you at your table to fend for yourself unless you yell for them. I'm not kidding-if you don't speak up, you could starve in a restaurant in Germany or France.

It is especially important to know some of the local language if you have any allergies or dietary sensitivities. I am not a fan of the whole "gluten free dairy free carb free GMO free chemical free paelo pescatarian with a french manicure and died hair but i'm a hipster" kind of shit but if you actually will have a reaction or cannot eat something for religious reasons, it is good to be able to ask. If you didn't study I hope you brought your epi-pen!

Personal emergencies

God damn it, you ate peanuts and didn't realize it. Now, ask someone to call an ambulance. Oh shit, you don't speak Chinese do you?! Why didn't you think of this?! Seriously, learn some emergency phrases, they could save you or someone else. The terms for "help me", "call the police", "call and ambulance" etc are always in my staple travel phrases.

Meeting really cool people

Okay you met a sexy Hungarian man while on vacation but he didn't speak English and you didn't know Hungarian. Goodbye vacation romance! 

In addition to dreamy boys, there are so many people in the world that you don't have the opportunity to meet or chat with just because you don't speak the language. Imagine how many friends (or boyfriends) you could make? People will help enrich your travels! Let them by learning a bit of their language :)

| Voyaging Viking | Is English Enough When Traveling Internationally?

Maybe I have convinced a few people. Realistically, I probably just pissed off a whole bunch of GMO & chemical free paleo freaks but that's okay. I don't understand you either. Learning a new language can be scary but I promise, it isn't as hard as we make it out to be. With a bit of dedication and excitement, you can meet and greet all the Hungarian boys (or otherwise) you want! 

If you don't like my answer, what did you expect asking me? I mean, come on! 

More on language learning

A Polyglot's Secret to Learning Languages

Why I Study 4 Languages and You Should Too

Language Learning Tips

10 Myths that Hinder Your Language Learning Goals

Siggi Einarson

My name is Siggi-dubbed by my American friends because of the Icelandic yogurt-I am a writer, polyglot, and aspiring expat, not a cup of yogurt (unfortunately).

My love for travelling began with a trip to Iceland and Sweden to visit my family when I was just 15 years old. I spent so long dreaming of the possibilities of life abroad but I always figured these dreams were too far reached. Flash forward almost 10 years, here I am again, both cursing and thanking this damn travel bug.

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