English is spoken in many places around the world and many English-speaking travelers don’t bother learning native languages of the Countries they are visiting. I am ashamed to admit I have been one of these guilty and entitled travelers. When I headed off to South East Asia during my gap year between high school, I didn’t bother to pick up a single translation book. I chose to backpack in Asia because it was something of a black hole to me, and I knew I may never have the opportunity again. I decided that blonde hair, blue eyes and a white smile would get me where I wanted to go, should someone I meet along the way not speak English. NEWSFLASH: a lot of people don’t speak English! Especially outside the big cities, in rural villages where I found myself very often. Another NEWSFLASH: many things can be smoothed out with hand gestures and smiles, but not all of them.
I decided I should have bothered with some language lessons when I was trying to find my way home one night in Jaipur, India. I had mastered catching a tuk-tuk and could even negotiate a decent price with out too many language issues. However, I learned that navigating unnamed streets in a foreign place definitely warranted a more concrete communicational avenue. Thirty minutes later, still driving around in circles alone, I realized how completely helpless I was. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English to translate for me, but knew I had no right to be. I was the foreigner and should have prepared a little bit for any misadventure, that are always bound to happen! Eventually, exhausted and fighting back tears, I found my way home.
Now when I travel, anywhere outside of the United States, I have a translation book in the pocket and few key words memorized. I will always be able to give simple directions, ask for the bathroom, order a beer, say please and thank you. Even thought I know my pronunciation is not always on point, I have found people respond kindly if you simply try. So pick a new place, learn some crucial words, and get out there!