English as Your Only Language.

So, I’ve been reading this book called The Timbuktu School for Nomads. It’s helping me keep my head in other places over the winter, before I start travelling again in the spring. I enjoy the story very much, and it makes me think of my own time in the desert (such as it was). The reason I bring this up here is that there is a fair bit in the story about struggling with language. The author kind of made his own way out of Europe and down through Africa. he went from local tribe to local tribe and had to adjust to different languages as he went. it is my impression that he spoke some Arabic before he left Europe, but not a lot. Which leads me to me topical question, Do you find it necessary to speak more than one language, or to have a backup language?

I only speak one language. English. American English, to be exact. I specify the difference, because the first time I went to London I had no idea what people were saying for about two days. It took me some time to listen to the differences in words and start to figure things out.

In my travels, I have found that there were many occasions where speaking the local language would have been handy however, it was never a necessity. I have always managed to get by on some hand gestures and a big cheesy smile. Case in point, Paris. I love Paris. It’s dirty and fantastic and ( sadly) full of Parisians. They are the international poster children for being snooty about language. Or, so it would seem from the modern media. The truth is not so far afield.

Whenever I can, I stay a little place called Le Tim Hotel. It’s on the Seine, down the street from the Louvre. It’s a nice little place with good access to the Metro. Directly across the street from the front door is a corner Brassiere. You can get a beer or some food, and watch the street scenes play out as you sit. It’s nice.

Now, to set the stage, I wouldn’t say I speak any French, at all. I took French classes in first through fifth grade, and grew up about an hour and a half from Quebec, in New York. One would think I would have retained some ability to fake my way through, but no! What I retained were words. Words buried deep in my memory. The stuff that comes out when you’re talking and not thinking.

Every time I get into town, I go to the Brassiere. I go there every day, late in the afternoon, for something to eat. Usually on the first day I can say hello. The waitress French girl looks at me with disdain and shows me a seat. By the last day, I can string together a sentence, and the same waitress French girl will usually smile and ask me to stop speaking French and just use American. I’ll laugh, do as instructed, and leave an extra tip.

The point to this is not that they don’t like people who don’t speak the language. They don’t like people who don’t try to speak the language. This is an important distinction to make. I try to learn enough of any language before I go to say hello, yes, no, reservation, please and thank you. This little bit, if applied correctly, will warm the heart of the person you’re talking to enough, to let you off the hook. You need to start out in their language, and let them tell you to switch.

Second case study was the Middle East. (I may have mentioned this bit in an earlier post. if I’m being redundant I’m sorry.) The Arabic language is not and easy nut to crack. I bought a Rosetta Stone set before I left and attempted to learn some of the language. it was not a success. So, I tried a second time, when I first made it to Kuwait. That too, was not a success.

You would think that a big white dude wandering around Kuwait and not knowing how to speak Arabic would be a problem. I certainly did. it turns out that it’s not. After a little trial and error, some random conversations at restaurants, and pretty much every cabbie in the country, I learned that the base common language in Kuwait is English. It was some thing I was unprepared for, and left a large cultural hurdle un-leapt, though it helped me significantly. The vast majority of people in Kuwait are imported workers. The Kuwaiti really don’t do anything useful. Mostly, because they have oil money. So everyone that I ended up interacting with out in the city, the cabbies, the shopkeepers, the restaurant waitresses and the like, were all from some other country. They were from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Shri Lanka. They couldn’t talk to each other either, but they all learned from limited form of English in their homeland. So, by proxy, English became the common tongue.

I learned as I spent time there that it as definitely more helpful if you had someone in your group that did speak the language. I paled around with my British buddy Zahin. Z Man’s Cultural upbringing meant that he could converse in Pakistani. We got way better service and food at the local place when we conversed with them in their native tongue. I got perfectly acceptable service when I went at them in English, but I got way better food when Z Man went at them in Pakistani. People just respected that. That, I am fully behind.

So, I have found that if you are polite and courteous, people will also be polite and courteous. From Egypt to Jordan, to Dubai, to Italy, to France, and Peru, I have found that if you go slow and at-least start out I their language, you will end up getting the conversation completed. People are people. They just want you to respect their ways. After all, isn’t that why we travel? To learn the ways of others?

Have you had this same experience? Have you tried to get somewhere on hand gestures and a big smile? Knowing the native tongue is definitely good, but don’t let it stop you from going.

Kuwait, circa 2018. The shops signs in Kuwait are somewhat bilingual, as are the road signs. I think the camel just speaks camel though.


Now go on. get out there and make your own experiences.

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