Speaking in a Foreign Land: Language Etiquette



Walking into the store, I braced for a tongue tangling. The words, if I were lucky, would tumble out not conjugated and without proper enunciation. As I left shrouded in confusion at the event I had just been a part of (in presence only) I realized it had fallen short of even these expectations.


Learning the Mother Tongue

When visiting a country that does not speak your native tongue, I think it is only fitting to put forth an effort learn theirs. This especially holds true when you are, in fact, living in the country for any length of time.

As a native English speaker, I am fortunate that a large portion of the world knows at least a bit of my language. (Thank you, MTV.) This is a fact I am constantly reminded of as the sound of bad American Pop music sprays from the speakers of shops in every country I visit. I don't rely on this fact to ease the burden of my travels. Instead I see it as a gift, and as such, I should return it in favor.

I have been in Croatia for a little less than a week now. I know the days of the week, how to count to ten and enough sayings to get by for small social interactions for now. Is this sufficient? I can't say. I do see appreciation on the faces of most store clerks I encounter. Frowns from a few as I butcher my way through their language.

Taking note of both of these reactions I think has been key for me. It has given me appreciation and insight into some misconceptions and truths about non-native speakers integrating into a society.


Cultural Assimilation

Everyone is familiar with the scene at the check-out counter, as we witness the foreigner with the blank look stumble through the entire interaction with the clerk. Each of us have our own reactions and judgments that form in our minds. All too often, myself included, we cast negative judgments and reach unfair conclusions about this individual.

It was not until I myself became this foreigner, or so-called 'outsider,' that I fully appreciated this situation. A simple truth - it is never wise to make assumptions or jump to conclusions. The old saying 'walk a mile in another man's shoes' seems appropriate here.

This individual at the check-out may be silent or slow to respond, not for lack of intelligence or effort. They may simply be self-conscious of their proficiency in the language. Perhaps they have not yet learned enough to express themselves fully in a conversation.

During my travels I have encountered non-native English speakers who graciously apologize for their abilities. In some cases, they are as well-spoken and fluid as any native speaker. Yet still for them, a level of conversational comfort keeps them silent all too often.

There is, as always, a flip side to every situation. While some people likely have their own position on this issue, I have mine own as well.


Living vs. Visiting

Living in another society is wholly different from visiting another society. I balk when some travelers ask 'why should I learn a language when I am only visiting and they already speak mine?' I understand that position. However, when choosing to stay for longer periods of time and intermingling with this culture, a person must be realistic.

Not only as a sign of respect, but out of necessity and practicality, an honest and heartfelt attempt should be made to become as fluent as possible in their language. It has been mentioned by at least one well-known American travel writer Rick Steves, that there exists in Europe today, a lack of will for immigrants to assimliate into their new cultures. As a New Yorker I can attest that this is a popular, if not correct viewpoint in the United States. Debates rage on, seemingly without end over our border policy with Mexico and the role that Mexican immigrants play in United States society.

This is the crux of the problem, and many who choose to live in a foreign culture bear fault for it. If we view ourselves as superior or believe that we are somehow separate from the societies we live in, we not only deny reality, but in a very real way we sever ourselves from it.

About Author

Post by Kurt Trumble
The Low Down:

Kurt grew up on Long Island in New York. He spends his time learning emerging open source technologies and social media. He runs Travel With Drupal, focused on Drupal webdesign and blogging. (http://www.travelwithdrupal.info). Beatnik literature and The Beatles top his list of interests when not backpacking around.