I recently spent a lush green week walking along the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way) in Northern Spain. We crossed paths with an exciting linguistic and cultural hotpot of walkers from all over the world.
No, this isn’t just an excuse to boast about my latest holiday. There is a linguistic point to this post, promise.
Whilst trundling along with rucksack and blisters, we got talking to different people in different languages. However, wherever I went it seemed impossible to escape from English – not that we encountered many Brits and only a handful of Americans or Canadians. But, everywhere I went I caught snatches of English conversation, even when native speakers were very much absent.
It’s seemed clear that English is now the official language of travel, with or without the natives.
This became even clearer when we arrived at our Porto hostel post-camino. Here, those who didn’t master the language of Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling seemed doomed to spend a very lonely evening in the very lively bar. The staff spoke in English (highly polished), the wine-tasting was in English (rather tipsy) and the pub crawl was in English (decidedly slurred).
I got chatting to a (rather charming) Dutch guy who was unable to understand how in the world it was possible not to speak at least a little English. Easy for someone coming from an anglophile nation where English language learning begins from a very young age.
This attitude used to annoy me. Almost as much as the English-American reluctance to pick up foreign languages. Yet, mid-portocaipiroska*, I suddenly asked myself why non-natives learn English and, more importantly, why natives would struggle with another language?
Non-english speakers learn the lingo to communicate in international contexts. That is to say, by necessity or desire for professional and/or personal reasons (whether it be listening to rap music, watching Mad Men or flirting in youth hostel bars). This is rarely a two-way process and English-speakers’ linguistic motivation remains, at best, limited.
I still maintain that when in Rome speak like the Romans – it’s a shame not to learn the language of the country where you live or travel, especially as it offers such a huge insight into the culture and people.
However, I’ll now be a little more tolerant and think twice before criticising perceived English-speaking arrogance, especially given how keen non-natives are to fine tune their English!
*A surprisingly tasty Caipiroska with a dash of port!