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

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?

Can I Travel if I Don’t Know the Local Language?

Fresh Fishmarket - Cadiz, SpainGood Morning! Buon Giorno! Καλημέρα! Have you caught yourself dreaming about an international trip only to have that nagging voice in your head remind you that you don’t speak the local language? If you’re like many aspiring travelers I’ve talked to, you might eliminate destinations or entire trips because of language barriers. It causes uncertainty, especially in novice travelers, or those considering their first solo trip. It also can lead to the cancellation or re-direction of what would otherwise be incredible adventures.

Let me be blunt – it doesn’t matter. Knowing the language in (most) destinations is a nicety, one which will enrich your experience, but is anything but a necessity. Especially for a shorter, more casual trip, where you expect to travel for a week or two. I’ve traveled to 31 countries so far and spent more than 6 months on the road over the last 5 years. Even with all of that travel I’ve yet to have any major issues despite the fact that I only speak one and a half languages and use Google Translate on a regular basis to convert booking and information websites to English.

My native tongue is English which I supplement with terrible Spanish. I’m not talking, “Oh I’m fluent but I can’t write in Spanish”, I’m talking the leftover scraps of memory from Spanish classes my Freshman, Sophomore and Junior year of High School. I’m guessing that most of you have at least a tiny bit of Spanish or French under your belt. If not, don’t despair. There’s still hope.

The biggest roadblock to communicating internationally isn’t language…it’s fear. Fear of being lost and helpless, fear of being embarrassed and fear of making mistakes. The truth is everybody makes mistakes and nobody cares, heck the vast majority of people are just happy you tried. Lost and helpless? You’re more likely to get stepped on by an elephant.

When we are nervous our bodies start to mis-communicate. We become less expressive and more likely to avoid physical illustrations and gestures. Some 85% of communication is non-verbal. If you relax, accept that you’ll have a few confusing/awkward situations, put a warm smile on your face, and invest a little effort, you’re going to be able to communicate no matter where you are. Sure, you won’t be able to stop and ask to borrow some sugar, but you’ll still be able to engage, communicate and get around.

For good measure, make sure you always carry a small notepad and pen to write things down (eg: directions and the cost of items) or draw a picture of something you need. Also, don’t rule out continuing to talk and explain in English even after it has been established that you don’t understand the local tongue. While counter-intuitive, I observed this trick employed by locals while on the road. It recognizes that the essence of communication flows much more naturally when talking comfortably and leverages it. It gives people the opportunity to pick out words they may recognize, judge flow, tone, and makes it easier for you to gesture and engage. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating being an ‘ugly tourist’. Don’t be an individual who is exploring a country and assumes everyone should and must speak English.

There’s a huge difference in personal interactions when you are actively trying to communicate. While exploring a country without a knowledge of the local tongue make the added effort to learn ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘I’m sorry I don’t understand’. It’s always important to remember that it’s their country, their language, and, that YOU are a visitor in their home. Above all, if you follow a simple rule (don’t be a dick), you’ll find that the sky is the limit on human openness and hospitality.

Lastly, do your research and use your common sense. Do you need to know Italian for a trip to Rome and Florence in Italy? Probably not. Should you establish a more advanced understanding of the local language when preparing for a multi-month hiking trek across rural Brazil? Probably.

If you can practice a foreign language before (or during) your trip, jump on it! While the local language isn’t a requirement for travel, it is a huge factor in the richness. Basic communication will give you the warmth of a culture but it’s only through speaking the language that you can begin to truly understand and appreciate the depth.

Adventure and amazing people await. Don’t let baseless excuses hold you back. Get out there, meet amazing people, and learn about yourself as you discover new and amazing places. Who knows, you might even learn a fun word or two in the process!

Still not satisfied? Everyone I know speaks highly of Rosetta Stone’s line of language learning software.

*This post was originally published on GenJuice.com