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Being English Abroad

There are very few places or situations that English people (that is, native English speakers) can’t deal with or work around. This makes us lucky – but it also makes us lazy. The lack of necessity means that most of us don’t even think about learning another language.

English is the second most spoken language in the world but is considered to be the planet’s lingua franca and according to the New Scientist, even predicted to be the language we will one day all speak (thanks to English similects developing around the world), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn certain words in a foreign language out of respect and appreciation for others, if nothing else.

Last week, I found myself reeling as I watched chef Rick Stein eat his way around Shanghai. He was meeting people who could speak English (such as a food blogger who translated very specific, food questions), and locals who couldn’t speak English. He was invited into their kitchens, their workplaces and even their homes, yet he could not say one word. The only ‘thank you’s’ he gave were in English. In one particularly surreal scene, he was sat around a table with local fishermen, eating their fresh catch, and spoke to the camera while his lunch companions looked on like props.

I don’t know Rick Stein – maybe he can say the basics in Chinese and chose not to, or maybe he just mumbled them really quietly. But if I was going to another country, working with people who can’t speak English, discussing the culture equally as much as the food — and doing all of this on TV — I’d probably say ‘thank you’ in the relevant language. If not for the cameras, or the reminder to audiences at home that appreciating other cultures is important, then at least for the people he was interacting with, out of basic courtesy. It’s not just Stein. I recently watched John Torode (a chef I quite like) fumble his way through Malaysia.

Thankfully, this isn’t the case for all of those who explore the world on our TV screens. In traveller Levison Wood’s recent account of walking the length of the Himalayas, he frequently said hello and thank you in the varying native languages, even though he was often accompanied by locals who could speak for him.

Most of us have relied on English when we’re abroad, simply because we can. On family holidays, it was the norm to use English and a part-apologetic, part-‘oh well!’ smile to get by. I figured that I was saying thanks, and that was the important thing. But when I started travelling as an adult, something changed. I realised my defiant use of English was tacitly implying that the only thing I was thankful for when I cooed ‘thank you’ to Greek shopkeepers was that I could speak English and they could — had to — understand. With every ‘hello!’ and ‘can I have this please?’, I was really saying, I don’t value your culture as much as my own.

The rudeness of what I was doing (or not doing) became painfully apparent. I felt I could no longer ‘get away with it’ without feeling terrible. The fact that I felt I had been ‘getting away with it’ in the first place made me realise that I was fully aware all along that I was doing something wrong – something we think is acceptable simply because we haven’t been thrown out of an Italian museum for using English, or tutted at by a Moroccan waiter. This is the worst kind of assumption, akin to saying it must be ok to shoplift because you’ve never been caught.

I can’t speak any other languages fluently, so this isn’t a diatribe about those who can’t converse with a Spanish bus driver or say what they’d like from the menu. But if we tried, most of us could manage hello, goodbye and thank you in a foreign language.

So this is a call for respect. We are so lucky that, for the most part, we don’t have to learn a foreign language to get somewhere in life. Let’s be kind to those who do, and respect their mother tongue.

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