My husband and I love to travel, and thankfully, growing up in France and Venezuela has proved useful when we’re trying to speak to locals. But when I don’t have the benefit of speaking the language, I always make an effort to teach myself key phrases and bring a dictionary with me wherever I go. Why? Because, in addition to making it much easier for me to communicate with the locals, it shows respect for their culture.
Oftentimes, travelers take it for granted that people will be able to speak English wherever they go. Why bother to do any research when you can make the concierge, waiter or cab driver do the hard work? I’ve even seen people get upset when they are asking for directions or ordering at a restaurant and nobody speaks English. I’m shocked at the sense of entitlement. Not only does it make them seem like an Ugly American, but it shows a lack of respect for the country they are visiting. If you wanted to speak English and feel surrounded by familiar things on your vacation, you should have stayed at home.
But think about it: If a stranger approached you on the street and asked for directions in, say, German, you’d feel flustered. If that stranger then got upset because you couldn’t speak German, you’d be annoyed. Yes, English is a more common language, but it still doesn’t make it right to rely on others to have language skills better than our own.
Next time you are booking a trip in a foreign country, pick up a language dictionary and make an effort to learn some crucial phrases. Oftentimes the staff at hotels and restaurants will pick up that you’re American and speak English if they can, but it’s good to be able to get around on your own skills. One trick I’ve learned is to write out a word and how it’s pronounced on a post-it, which you can stick up on your bathroom wall or closet door—anywhere you’ll see it over and over. After a while the words will sink in.