English as the common language

CommonLanguageOne of the most wonderful experiences of my life happened many years ago when I was doing a big rock climb in Switzerland. My climbing partner and I met and chatted with two Swiss climbers on the route. They spoke no English and I spoke only high school French and German. When I didn’t know how to say something in one language I would switch to the other language. I never knew how they decided which language to reply in. It was a magical experience.

I’m now in Spain and don’t know enough Spanish to say more than a few basic things. Cuánto cuesta? Un café con leche, por favor. Para llevar. But it’s a different world now. English is everywhere – except with restaurant staff and shopkeepers.

We were at a restaurant in Órgiva. Every occupied table was occupied by English speaking people – mostly Brits. But the waitress spoke no English. Nor did the people at the local supermarket. Nor did the woman behind the counter at the pharmacy.

But why should they speak English? This is Spain. People coming to the country should learn the language of the country. Except that many parts of Spain rely heavily on tourism. We talked to one of the waiters in Órgiva about all this. He spoke very good English, but he was from Czechoslovakia. I asked if he spoke German and French and he said no, but that pretty much all the tourists who visited the restaurant spoke some English. We met some Norwegians at the restaurant who spoke better English than many of my friends.

We noticed this too in Valldemossa. At the table next to us was an East European woman – maybe Russian. She tried talking to the waitress in her own language, which didn’t work, so then she tried English. That didn’t work either as the waitress spoke no English, and they ended up communicating in hand gestures.

From my very limited and very anecdotal experience it really does appear that English is becoming the common language among travelers, even if it’s being resisted by people who rely on tourism for their income. But maybe the resistance is slowly waning. Our Czech waiter told us that his fellow waitress has started taking English classes.

What have your travel experiences been? Do you think people in tourist destinations should learn English?

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3 Responses to English as the common language

  1. Randy says:

    What you’ve said is true. While a common language makes for better communication, it can take away from the charm and inherent differences that make some places worthwhile destinations. Language reflects and often sets the tone of different cultures; everything from the way people interact with others, how they dress, and even what they eat and drink. I’m not sure that eliminating all that is a good thing, just to make it easier for lazy people like me. I do know that it’ll make the world a lot less interesting.


  2. Alec – a couple of thoughts. In the world of science, English is definitely the common language. I don’t think that I have met anyone at an international scientific conference that did not speak English. Sometimes we would joke that we needed an English to English translation, but it was because of pronounced accents, not a lack of command of the language. Second – we have generally found that folks very much appreciate our primitive attempts to converse in their language rather than to just start speaking English. If they do not speak any English, they will make a special effort to speak simply and slowly. We rarely have encountered waitstaff that speak no English – often they would say they do not, but they are a bit timid thinking that they do not speak very well. But, they usually are much better at English than we are at Spanish or German. I don’t see any need for requiring workers in tourist destinations to speak English, but I do believe that they would likely benefit from learning some basics.


    • Alec Sharp says:

      When I worked at Oracle our product had a development group in India. There was one programmer in the group who I could never understand, even though he spoke English. His manager always had to interpret for me.


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