Pro Travel Tips: Never Ask If They Speak English

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helloI’ve been getting back into podcasts while driving, and have been catching up on the Alton Brown podcast. In the Samantha Brown episode, she shared a good tip about international travel and language barriers that I’ve never read in a guidebook: Never go around asking people if they speak English. Even if you say the question in their home language. Because when you say:

Do you speak English?

What they often hear is:

You speak English, DON’T YOU?

This comes off as a challenge, with the suggestion that you are expected to serve them. It starts off your conversation on the wrong foot. I know, I used to do it myself. You can see their face clench in a defensive manner.

The trick is to simply attempt your question in their home language (with a smile). Even if it is just “Hello” or “Excuse me” and then gibberish. They’ll be able to tell you don’t speak their language well. Most likely, they’ll even be able to figure out you speak English (even if you don’t think you look American) by your accent. Then if they do speak English, they’ll help you. If they don’t, they’ll still try to help you. People tend to be very nice in this regard. As Samantha Brown sums it up:

It’s better to butcher their language and show that you care, rather than speak perfectly in your own language and prove that you don’t.

For more pro travel tips check out Top 20 Hacks to Travel Like a Kiva Pro and How to Travel by Anthony Bourdain.

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  1. That feels a bit harsh but I agree with the gist. Personally, I’d say, rather: always try their language first. I do always attempt the question in the native language, definitely. It drove me nuts traveling internationally with a group of American kids who just didn’t even TRY, not even saying hello in the native language. It’s not THAT hard!

    But more often than expected, I’ve found that it’s much easier for the people I interacted with to speak in English than to listen to the butchering of their own language; some of the people I shopped from or what have you proactively asked ME if I speak English and switch with visible relief. (I know, I know, terrible. I try, but that’s how bad my attempts can be.)

    In years of travel, I’ve only gotten That Look once, and that was recently, but everyone else was great with understanding that their English was no worse than my version of Their Language so we muddled along in our respective pidgin attempts at conversation with no offense taken on either side.

  2. I grew up abroad and spent most of my life in foreign countries and I’ve never seen this question taken as a challenge. It is a good overall point though. I think a lot has to do with the way that you ask the question and interact with people. Many Americans (in particular) tend to come across in a superior manner, no matter what they say, and this is certainly perceived negatively. The key is to approach folks respectfully and with humility and then, more often than not, you will be met with someone helpful and friendly, regardless of what languages are or aren’t spoken.

    • I agree, I have probably asked this question hundreds of times and have never seen a bad reaction. That said, I do try to make it sound a bit softer saying perhaps “Do you by any chance speak English?” or something like that.

  3. The lesson I learned in the touristy parts of Montreal was: If you don’t know French, just start with English. If I led off with “bon jour”, intending to then switch to English, I got a face full of French and I’d then have to apologetically ask to use English. No one seems to care if I assumed they knew English. It won’t work this like everywhere, of course.

  4. Grandma Suggs says

    This is excellent advice. Anyone who has worked or lived in an area with a large immigrant population knows how frustrating it can be to have someone walk up to you asking a question in a foreign tongue without even an attempt at English.

    I first saw this travel advice in a Rick Steves travel guide. When visitiing South of France, I learned two simple sentences: Malheureusement, je ne parle pas français. Parlez-vous anglais?

    Quite a difference it would make, as French people have even less tolerance for bad manners than Americans.

  5. Alex Truedman says

    In fact, this piece of advice is very smart especially for less touristy countries, such as Island or, let’s say, some African or Middle East country. It’s not that you will not get language support from the very start, on the contrary, while Brazil, Spain or India have already gotten used to the foreigners trying to speak their mind in the language of the country they’re in, less popular places still consider it’s a pleasant surprise and will favor such attitude in the first place. Another point, you’ll hardly find a phrase-book in the Icelandic or Lebanese that easy, so you might need some help from the locals. And one more point: it’s possible that you may sound funny and ridiculous in the foreign language and the locals will enjoy and be ready to help you immediately. But it’s also possible that you mix up something in a negative way, sound ridiculous or even offensive, so you’d better start with something simple and learn some valuables about the extralinguistic features of the language you are going to use (how to shake hands and move your body so that not to declare something negative). Because if you’ll sound too complicated you might not get help at all. So don’t try to find the way to the public library or shake hands from the very start, try “hello” and “can you help me” first.

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