Whenever I travel, people ask me how I deal with the language barrier as if it is some kind of physically oppressive wall that stops them from travelling themselves. Of course I tell them that language is only a part of travel and that the experience transcends language or that communication is often about a shared experience or some other equally ridiculous hogwash. The truth is that I’ve never really had much trouble with the isolation that comes with the inability to effectively engage in communication due to insufficient grasp of a language. I’ve spent time in Asia and North Africa where the local tongue is vastly different from my native, English (albeit bastardised Australian English), but there has always been someone around who understands me and can communicate. More importantly, people have always been willing to try out their English skills with a visiting English speaker.
As Australians, we don’t have the need to diversify our language skills as our day to day lives rarely require cross-lingual communication, and even if it does, our national language (English) is the standard method of communication (I apologised to a friend from not being able to speak Dutch recently and she said that it didn’t matter because English was the only language that was important). This is – in itself – a concerning idea. We, thanks to our isolation, laziness, or self assured arrogance are content with the kind of half-baked attempts at learning a second language that I experienced at school (I attempted Japanese, and even visited Japan for a few weeks, but gave up in year 9 when things became a little difficult).
While I was in Europe recently, my understanding of the language barrier changed significantly. I arrived in Heerhugowaard (North of Amsterdam) safe in the knowledge that people everywhere spoke English, and expecting the same easy ride that I’d experienced in places like Laos, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. I’d failed to consider one, vitally important, fact: Dutch people – thanks to their location in Europe – usually know how to speak English, so having a visiting English speaker is not the same novelty that it might be in parts of Asia. In fact, having to speak in a second language that they understand fluently might even become annoying. Because of this, people tend to speak Dutch. That is not to say the people I met in The Netherlands (or France, or Germany, or Austria) refused to speak to me in English if they knew of my embarrassing linguistic handicap, but I found, for the first time in my travelling life, that I was effected by a language barrier. Every time that Linh was busy and I tried to venture out into the world, I felt a great sense of embarrassment (at my inability to grasp the 5 or so languages that are a basic expectation of Dutch schooling), and the frustration that non English speakers must feel across the world as single language speakers like myself assume their understanding.
I felt conscious, whether buying groceries, checking into a flight, or ordering a meal, of my handicap and it came as a great shock to me how demeaning it felt to have to admit my inability to speak the local language. In somewhere like Sri Lanka, the inability to speak Tamil or Sinhalese can be easily expected by the locals thanks to the fact that I clearly look like a tourist, however in Europe, the assumption that I should be fluent in whichever language I couldn’t speak on any particular day, is justified.
It wasn’t the encounter with a rude waiter in France (a massive stereotype, I know), where he refused to speak English (or provide decent service when Linh and our guide/Linh’s cousin ordered in French) that made me really feel the pinch of my ineptitude, it was a trip to the local supermarket in Heerhugowaard where I could not tell the difference between whipped cream and sour cream, did not know how to ask, and could not even exchange niceties with the cashier.
This experience reminded me of two things. Firstly, we take English for granted as a language and should perhaps be a little more considerate of those Australians (and visitors) who have made a massive effort to learn what is a very difficult tongue. The other point that was slammed home to me was that I need to get my act together and learn a second language. Most Europeans (outside the UK from what I can gather) are fluent in at least two languages and can get by in up to 5, so before you scoff at taking a few classes of French or Indonesian just consider who you would hire – me, with some proficiency in English, or Linh who speaks English, Dutch and Vietnamese fluently as well as French and German. I guess I’ll just clean out my desk then.