How we lost touch with the others

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Somehow, over the years as the English language has become more and more common, us native English speakers have become lazy. Now we just expect people to talk like us.

When I was in school I learnt French and Japanese. They were elective subjects meaning they weren’t compulsory.

I learnt French for two ears, and having gone to France three times now, all I can manage to say is hello, goodbye, I love you and can I have a vanilla ice cream.

I learnt Japanese through the exchange students my parents would look after. Now though, I can’t even communicate with the waitresses at Yo Sushi without playing charades.

But, being a traveller and having been travelling through Europe for the past 18 months, I still remain as un-linguistic as ever. Sure, I go to Italy and I can say ‘ciao bello’ in a cheesy Italian accent, but the only real way I communicate with people is with English. I feel so obnoxiously ignorant but it works.

Generally speaking, English is the universal language. The reasons for the position of English are the imperialism and economical and political importance of English-speaking countries.

Linguistically, English is extremely unsuitable for international communication, and the actual wide use of English tends to polarize the world into Internet users and Internet illiterates.

The position of English can only be altered by major world-scale political and economical changes, such as increasing importance of the European Union or a coalition between Japan and China. Such powers might wish and be able to promote a language other than English, possibly a constructed language, for international communication.

But English undeniably works everywhere and it could be a bad thing, especially for culture hungry travellers. The experience of travelling used to be about how outrageous prices were, figuring out the growing list of different currencies and values – but most importantly it was trying to speak another language.

I feel most countries lose part of their cultural and differentiating appeal when everyone speaks English to you. And I know how this sounds. But to put it into prospective, I can find myself in some exotic city franticly flipping through the pages of my phrase book looking for the right way to say, ‘which way is the Louvre?’ while in the meantime the person I am asking says, ‘It down the street to the left,’ in perfect English. Travelling is about struggling. It’s about learning in a new environment and learning how to communicate with the human race, a skill we are vastly losing.

Us English speakers are ignorant because we can be. When global business decided to make English the universal language, it gave us all a break and decided schools didn’t have to teach a second language any more, not compulsory anyway. When we had Japanese students stay, they didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak a word of Japanese. But by the time the left we were having conversations in both languages – that was the purpose!

In the Netherlands, most people speak up to five languages – fluently. Words cannot describe how inadequate I felt while there. Even worse, I work with a Dutch guy who surfs the webs reading and deciphering texts from many a different languages. There is also a girl who gives telephone interviews for stories in Russian – and she’s from Liverpool.

Being the true romanticist, I always thought that music was the universal language. We don’t even share that joy anymore. There are not many things in this world that separate us from each other anymore and we are in danger of all seeming so similar. And then what would be the point of travelling. Landscapes?

Travelling is a whole experience. It’s not just about the land the history and the architecture. It’s about the culture the differences and it’s sometimes a little about struggling to get things right and having awesome stories of getting lost and yelled at in foreign languages.

Are we losing out on experiencing each other because we’ve become lazy and are we just simply dumbing down? We are missing out. Missing out on learning and embracing difference and now we travel for holidays, not experiences.

I can only hope that people don’t stop trying. No matter how silly or embarrassed you are, never stop trying to embrace another language and culture. You’ll learn more than words as English isn’t a translation of what someone wants to say, it’s a summary. There are some words in languages that will never be defined by any English. Don’t miss out on that.