Most travelers have witnessed these awkward English exchanges. In the former example, the woman seemed to assume that anyone working at a hotel must speak fluent (rambling) English. In the latter, the man's simplified language and charades were so over-the-top, he came across as patronizing. Doesn't every traveler have a story like this? A glad-I'm-not-like-that-jerk tale?For me, part of the enjoyment of travel is the difference, the experience that I don't get at home. I enjoy the local foods, like to walk the streets, try to talk to the people. And while I recognize that many non-Americans, especially those in touristy areas, will speak English, I consider it respectful to learn at least a few phrases in whatever local language in which I'm immersed.
It's easy to roll one's eyes at these obvious gaffes and grumble about ignorance, but it's not easy to navigate a language barrier. Is it presumptuous to try and communicate in fluid English when abroad? Is it condescending to simplify your speech when talking to a non-native English speaker?
Here are some common ones that I've found useful:
do you speak English?
where is... ?
how much does this cost?
Like everyone else, I've had "language experiences" when I travel. My two favorites both occurred a few years ago, on my solo trip to Cancun. In the first experience, I was trying to let the hotel staff know that one of the lights in my bathroom didn't work. I couldn't come up with enough words on my own, so I cheated and typed it into Babelfish or some similar translation web site, and wrote the staff a note. The hotel staff giggled but understood what I meant; I guessed--and was correct--that what I had actually told them was that one of the lights in my bathroom wasn't employed! Not knowing I'd used the internet, though, they still told me they were impressed with (and appreciative of) my effort.
On another day, I was on one of the local buses, and there were some clearly drunk, clearly American 20-somethings, very loud and very foul-mouthed, and crawling all over each other making out. F***ing-this, g**-d***-that, very rude and disrespectful to the passengers around them, stating outright that they considered the Mexicans to be lesser people than themselves. Past experience has taught me that drunk 20-somethings are not very likely to respond positively to corrections from a single middle-aged man, so I said nothing. As soon as they got off the bus (thankfully!), though, I looked around at those around me and said, "Lo siento por los Americanos." I don't know if it was proper grammar or not, but everyone smiled and looked sympathetically at me--knowing how embarrassed I was--and many gave me the "no problema".
Turns out, though, that the Americans are not the worst visitors to Cancun. Without exception, I was told that that dubious distinction belongs to the Argentines. Eastern Europeans can be a bit rude, too. In general, Americans may be clueless, but they mean well and don't try to offend.
In preparation for my now-cancelled Iceland trip, I had borrowed a language CD from the local library. I was practicing Icelandic pronunciation and trying to learn the stock phrases I listed above. That trip's now on long-term hold, and next year's trip is currently scheduled to be Italy. I spent a summer in Italy when I was 11 and knew all those phrases above, so my preparation for next year shouldn't be as daunting.