Central America

Etiquette Be Damned. Stop Asking, “Do you speak X language?” It’s Rude and Pointless.

separator
Posted on / by Alex Berger

Copenhagen Cafe Dogs

In a previous post Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations I discussed my evolving relationship with Danish.  One of the things I didn’t discuss was the surprising advice I received from Danish friends regarding one of the cornerstones of a traveler’s phrase book; the oft used opening inquiry, “Do you speak X language?”.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably perfected the art of opening every conversation with a friendly hello, and then the language intro.  Sometimes it is delivered in English and other times in whatever the local language is. While necessary in some areas, I view it as an essential common courtesy as well. After all, it’s bad enough that I don’t speak the native language in whatever country I’m in, to then assume that they should speak my language without asking smacks of arrogance and inter-cultural intolerance. Unless, that is, you are in Denmark.

While well intentioned, Danish proficiency in English is so high and their use of it so common, that to ask a Dane – especially those under 40 – if they speak English when voicing an inquiry, is to insult them.  Don’t get me wrong, they appreciate the sentiment and I doubt you’d ever find a Dane that would respond to the question harshly.  However, the inquiry is generally received here in Denmark much the same way it might be if you asked the same question, “Do you speak English?” on the streets of New York. Which is to say, you’d get a strange look, followed by a patronizing smile or a quizzical eyebrow and a hearty “Of course!”.

Weigh in, what is your experience? Have you found other regions or countries that are similar to Denmark?  If so, which?  Please share your experiences in a comment below.

Of further interest for me is the question it raises.  Who is the language inquiry really for? Is it an identifier which benefits the asker by helping compensate for their embarrassment about not knowing the language while notifying the individual being asked of their preferred language?  Is it a form of social contract where the asker is requesting permissions to proceed in a set language?  Or, is something else going on?

I have begun to suspect that in reality the inquiry, while well intentioned, is actually an obstacle to effective communication.  For the sake of this discussion let’s use English as the default language. If I ask an individual if they speak English, I’m really asking a procedural question which is actually very poorly constructed.  If they speak minimal to decent English, they’re inclined to be shy and respond with a modest “no” or “a little”. If they speak good to above average English, they may respond with a yes or still hedge their bets and understate their ability. If they speak above average to excellent English then the question mirrors the insensitivity highlighted with the Danes.  Of course, if they don’t speak any English at all, they’ll offer a completely blank look, understand the sentiment of your question and respond in their native language.

Ultimately, my hunch is that skipping the question all together will give you access to the same information without putting the individual you’re asking on the spot.  If they understand, then they can try and respond to the level of their competency.  If not, then they won’t be able to at which point it will be immediately clear allowing you to graciously thank them for their time and apologize for not speaking their language.  I don’t believe this is indicative of cultural insensitivity, as long as you’re not assuming they should speak English.  Only that it is a possibility, and they might be willing to do so.   Rather, I’ve begun to think that it is in fact more a matter of effective communication.

It is time to cross the question, “Do you speak English” from our travel books, advice columns and procedural etiquette.  Weigh in – where do you stand on the issue?

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

26 Comments

  • Galen J.
    October 16, 2011

    I would largely agree: in many of my travels people will respond to you if you start speaking to them, be it non-verbal or otherwise. More important than the language question is whether you can communicate good intent through motions, attitude, facial expressions. I find that I rather seldom ask if some speaks English. I will try to either a) learn enough in their language to communicate some basic needs, or b) just strike up a conversation and see what happens. Indeed, there are times people will respond in negative to whether they speak English or not due to either a lack of confidence (in places where English is widely spoken) or a feeling that it is not culturally ‘cool’ enough of a language (in Paris, for example). Of course, all of the above comes with the caveat that in some cultures simply beginning in English without some linguistic platitudes could make you seem a presumptuous outsider…

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      October 16, 2011

      This definitely gets to the heart of it, “More important than the language question is whether you can communicate good intent through motions, attitude, facial expressions.” well said. I think it also depends on the size of the city as well. Is it a major metropolitan capital/tourist city or a small town off the tourist circle.

      Reply
  • Natalie
    October 16, 2011

    I don’t normally ask as my travels are confined to Turkey and I like to speak Turkish whether possible. If the conversation is too hard for me, then I will open up with “Do you speak English?” which is commonly accepted as a normal question here in Turkey. I have even had holiday makers confuse me for a Turk and ask me if I speak English!!

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      October 17, 2011

      “I have even had holiday makers confuse me for a Turk and ask me if I speak English!!”

      Haha, that’s great!

      Reply
  • Michael Hodson
    October 17, 2011

    Personally, I think it is polite to ask and will continue to do so in most places. If I run into a younger person in Europe, I might not ask because I know they are likely a pretty fluent English speaker (though you best do so in France), but in most parts of the world, I think it is just a nice sign of respect for the local language.

    I might not know much, but I try for “please,” “thank you,” “do you speak English,” and “excuse me” in the local tongue, if I can manage it.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      October 19, 2011

      I agree with you on the age aspect. It really does make a difference in the approach I take and if I open with English, a local greeting, or something of that nature. Please and thank you are definitely a must.

      Reply
  • Jack Norell
    October 17, 2011

    I think it entirely depends on your location. If I’m somewhere like Turkey, like Natalie is, then I’d most definitely ask as English is rare among anyone over 35 or so, and still a bit unusual otherwise.

    What I find really helps to get people to open up is to (try and) start in the local language, even if that is a butchered version of “Do you speak x?” as it shows I’m happy to sound a bit dumb myself. Takes away much of the embarrassment factor as I’ve already embarrassed myself!

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      October 19, 2011

      Yeah, there’s definitely significant social value in showing some vulnerability. It’s a great way to accelerate rapport building. Even if it’s a relatively brief interaction. You can’t beat common ground, either via gestures or slang, for making connections. Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  • Wandering Justin
    October 18, 2011

    I never ask if someone speaks English. I don’t want to give the impression that I expect someone in another country to speak my language.

    Reply
  • kensai
    October 24, 2011

    I think the problem is that you’re not interpreting the phrase like the speaker is. By asking if you speak English, the person is trying to be humble about their language in a way. They don’t want to assume that ‘English should be the most widespread language in the world, so why shouldn’t everyone speak it’ and then presume that anyone they encounter knows what they are saying.

    Take English and replace it with Bulgarian. Would you prefer that Bulgarians stop you on the street and just start blabbering away at you in a language you likely don’t comprehend, or would you prefer that they start by saying “Bulgarian” in a questioning tone and then continuing from there?

    tl/dr: I think it’s more rude to assume that someone speaks English that to ask them if they do. Do you also assume that they speak other languages as well?

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      October 25, 2011

      Thanks for the comment Kensai! “I think the problem is that you’re not interpreting the phrase like the speaker is.” That’s at the heart of my point though. While the intent is good, ultimately if the whole point of the question is to be considerate and respectful the final opinion that counts is the receiver, not the speaker’s take.

      While my initial gut response is that I’d prefer the question, when I reflect on instances when people have approached me both ways both at home and abroad I find in practice I actually prefer they just start asking the question. If I recognize the language then great, I’ll respond as I can. If I recognize a place or name, even if i don’t get the language then i’ll also try and respond. If I don’t have a clue, then i’ll give them the same apologetic, “I’m afraid I don’t/don’t understand” I’d have given to the “Do you speak Bulgarian” inquiry. So, in practice, I actually prefer they skip the added question and am not bothered by it. Add the increased prevalence of English as the go to global language and there’s a strong incentive to stick with my original argument in the post.

      This past week I experimented on the ground in Hungary with this theory – really trying to force myself to apply it. What I found was that interactions went much more smoothly when I skipped the front-end question and just cut to the chase. The way i approached and asked was far more important than what I asked.

      Reply
  • Paul Cunningham
    October 27, 2011

    “Darf ich Englisch sprechen?” That is: “May I speak English?”
    This is the German one-liner that I’ve taught to my wife. It avoids addressing someone directly in English, but at the same time acknowledges that many Germans do, if not with supreme confidence, understand some English. Asking them if they speak English, in my experience, starts the conversation on an awkward footing.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      October 28, 2011

      I really like this approach, the subtle difference between it and the direct inquiry strikes me as something that would drastically change the general “feel” of the interaction.

      Reply
      • Adriana
        January 21, 2013

        Precisely, I use my on concocted phrase, “May I speak English to you/with you.”

        Reply
  • Giulia Pines Kersthold
    October 27, 2011

    Since moving to Germany over three years ago, I have cycled through several variations on this question. At the beginning I knew my German was so abysmal I could not hope to communicate what I wanted to in the local language. I didn’t bother asking if someone spoke English, because most of my interactions were either with shopkeepers where I could get by just by pointing at things, or with friends from my language school who I already knew spoke English.

    Then after a while, I felt the need to announce that my German was not that good, but that I wanted to try to use it anyway. I usually accomplished this by starting every conversation, no matter how mundane, with an apology: “I haven’t been here for long and my German is really bad etc. etc.” which didn’t make me feel too great.

    Finally, I landed on a phrase I have found far better (in that I can say it without trepidation or embarrassment) than the standard “speak any English?” I would simply ask, “Is it okay if we speak English?” I assumed that all my addressees had at least some knowledge of English (pretty much true in Berlin), but took the extra step to ask whether they would be comfortable speaking in it. This suggested both that they could communicate reasonably well in English, and that I could also communicate reasonable well in German (even when I couldn’t). It simply made that introductory statement more a matter of the speaker’s comfort than of his or her knowledge.

    Luckily I’m fluent enough in German these days that I don’t have to think much about this anymore, but when I cross the border into another country (and Czech Republic is only about three hours South–try that on for size) I still tend just to ask what I need to ask instead of asking whether I can ask it in English.

    Reply
  • Donna Hull
    November 10, 2011

    I say something like, “I’m sorry. I don’t speak (insert language). Would you be able to help me by speaking English? I think to automatically speak to assume that they speak English is rude on my part.

    Reply
  • Kate
    April 4, 2012

    I rather agree, though my experience in east Asia is that locals will see that I’m white, then assume I speak English, whether they think I’m European or American (a question they ask from curiosity sometimes). Sometimes I would prefer to practice my Japanese, but often -they- want to practice English. Few older folks don’t speak or refuse t speak English, at least in Japan; and there are those who either understand little English or are shy about it– those are the ones who ask if I speak Japanese. 🙂 Anyway, that question seems a last resort…

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      April 4, 2012

      Good insight into the Asian cultures, Japan in particular! Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • Jens Rost
    April 25, 2012

    Hi! is it OK, I write in english? 🙂

    If a chinese ask me in chinese if I speak chinese, then it really doesn’t matter anyway, so just go ahead with whatever you have, but I thinks it important to say “Excuse me” or “Pardon me” or “‘I’m sorry” (for bothering you) when you approach a complete stranger.

    Something else…
    For some unknown reason I often get asked for guidance by foreigners (and locals).
    Perhaps they think I look like a friendly person? But I let them stay in that belief 😀
    Anyway… to show a visitor the way to anywhere is not that easy if you are not local yourself but still would like to try.
    My advise to myself and any tourist is to always carry a map of the area, a pen and perhaps even a piece of paper with your destination(s)
    It makes the task so much easier, and faster! 😀
    And a few simple words on a paper in the native lingo like “The Old Castle”, “Main Railroad Station”, “Supermarket” or “Porn Shop” should do the trick without too many words wasted 🙂

    What do you think?

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      May 2, 2012

      Appreciate you writing in English 😉

      I agree on the importance of a polite preface to your question. Even if they don’t understand it, the intent is pretty international and gets the conversation started on the right foot from the get-go.

      It definitely helps to have a map on hand. Though, I find that the reason I have to ask for directions is usually because I don’t have access to a good map/or have a map with me. When I do, however, and am looking for something like the castle, it’s definitely very nice to be able to indicate on.

      Reply
  • Marysia @ My Travel Affairs
    November 27, 2013

    Ha ha ha, it is the same in whole Scandinavia, or at least it was my impression. I find asking if someone speaks X language pointless, just start up the conversation in a language you know best and see what happens 🙂

    Reply
  • Quentin
    February 26, 2015

    Hi, this post is a bit old but I still leave a comment,
    I strongly disagree with you, and I think your advice shouldn’t be applied for some country. I don’t know about Denmark, but I’m french and I can assure you that not asking if someone speaks or is OK to speak in english before engaging the conversation is perceived as really rude.
    Of course chances are very high that a person under 40 will be fluent, but directly speaking to them in english is like they owe you to speak your language.
    I am speaking for France here, but this might apply to other countries as well, not asking if you can speak to someone in english is just running the risk of getting a very cold reaction.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      February 26, 2015

      I hate to be “that guy” but I doubt it makes a lick of difference one way or the other in France. If you’re going to get a cold reaction, you’re going to get it no matter what approach you take.

      Reply

Leave a Reply