On the Road

Travel and Languages

Not everyone speaks English…

I think I must have picked up a survival vocabulary in about 15 languages since I started traveling. The Kurdish, the Arabic and the Korean have disappeared without trace but once upon a time I’d mastered enough small talk that I could successfully ask my way to the beach. Albeit with exaggerated hand gestures.

One time whilst hitchhiking in Turkey survival vocabulary became just that – the driver of the truck I was in was busy looking for a word in my English/Turkish dictionary and failed to notice that we were about to drive off a mountain cliff. I fought desperately for the right word and finally managed to shout:

“Bak!” Look! And the driver slammed on the brakes just in time. But the fence we crashed into went tumbling hundred of meters below.

The British tend to have a rather inept, aloof approach to learning languages, having been born with English as our mother tongue. The world language. Which means it’s up to the rest of the world to learn it.

The arrogance of this attitude is perhaps the legacy of the former British Empire and is probably it’s most long lasting consequence. I’ve met British people who have lived for more than thirty years in Spain and yet still have no idea how to order a sandwich in a local café. It defies belief.

People who look upon learning languages as a chore seem to miss the point that it’s all about communication. And life is so much more fun when you can communicate with the people around you. When I was hitchhiking to India I carried two postcards in Turkish and Farsi to explain that I was a pilgrim traveling upon the mercy of Allah. Wherever I went I was welcomed with open arms.

It took me a few years on the road to overcome my national apathy and really get to grips with another language. Although I was in India at the time I was hanging out so much with Israelis that I found myself studying Hebrew. For my Israeli friends it was so funny that a non-Jewish guy was learning the national language of a country of 6 million people. To this day whenever a group of Israelis hears my stuttering Hebrew I’m always invited to join them. They’re touched that I made an effort to get closer to their culture.

Contrast that with the reception most foreigners get in London when they try out their English. If a tourist fails to pronounce a word correctly in London then people will quite often simply refuse to understand them. I wince when I see visitors from France or Japan being given a hard time by a shopkeeper who probably can’t spell his own name. Nobody will ever be the slightest bit grateful that a foreigner took the time to learn English.

I found that Spanish was also a prerequisite throughout central America. Often it was only if you could speak Spanish that you were accepted as human being. If not then you were just another tourist standing in front of the church with a camera in your hands.

Spanish is the language in which I’ve approached anything like fluency Ie. I can talk to someone for hors about any subject under the sun but I’m not going to understand everything that everyone says. As language is a living, changing body of thought and emotion, how it’s spoken varies immensely from person to person and class to class. While I could understand 95% of what a university student might say I’d catch only about 30% of the drawl of the average farmer.

It’s always tougher to speak to the poorer sections of society because their language tends to be peppered with large amounts of slang that you won’t find in a standard dictionary. And even the slang within a language varies immensely from city to city and country to country.

When I arrived in Honduras I was so bewildered by the local jargon that I bought a book on local slang and vulgarisms. While I was browsing through the extensive lists of insults a local hood came up to me and spat at my feet. He proceeded to hurl every obscenity from the book in my face. He actually added a few more that weren’t even listed but I resisted the temptation to ask him to make any annotations.

Perhaps the most enchanting feature of speaking another tongue is when you begin to think in that language also. There exist phrases in Spanish for which I can’t think of a smooth equivalent in English. For example, instead of asking ‘what do you do for a living?’ people in Colombia would frequently ask ‘To what do you dedicate yourself?’ It sounds beautiful in English also but would be a real conversation-stopper if you ever came out with it.

Spanish, like many other languages in the world, has two distinct forms for ‘you’. If you know someone well or they’re fairly young you’ll probably say ‘tu’ whereas to a stranger or an old person it’s better to use ‘usted’. So far so good.

But for a nervous Englishman like me, desperate not to offend anyone, it became a minefield. Every time I went to speak to someone I had to evaluate my level of intimacy with them before I could select the appropriate pronoun. For native speakers it’s natural. My Colombian girlfriend used to switch from the friendly ‘tu’ to the more distant ‘usted’ every time she got mad at me. It was like a language thermometer.

Of course learning all the languages in the world won’t help you if you have nothing to actually say. I’ve seen people with far less Spanish than me get along with the locals like a house on fire while I slump in the corner in a bad mood. Communication would appear to depend more upon the intention to make contact than an accurate placement of prepositions. Some days I wake up to the telephone and I can hardly put together a sentence in any language. Words and phrases and slang from all over the world stew together and I’m left completely tongue-tied.

I have the feeling that when I get old and senile only people who speak English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew will understand as I hope from language to language in the middle of each sentence. There’s an air of mystique in England or the US attached to learning languages. People will often turn in wonder to hear that you speak two or even three other tongues. But many people’s in the world grow up speaking four or five languages without even noticing it. In Delhi it’s quite common for an Indian to speak Hindi, English, Punjabi and understand some Maharati and Bengali. Sadly, as there’ s so little money in those places it’s not that profitable to be such a master linguist.

It’s easy to get by with English in many places in the world but it’s nice to be an exception to the old joke:

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?


What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


And what do you call someone who speaks only one language?

An Englishman.

Ditto with Americans.