March 7, 2014

Why can't you speak English?

The locals where I currently live don't speak English. They have no fear of outside forces invading and taking over their freedom. They are self-sufficient with quality farmland, cheap manufacturing, and create TV, movies, and music in their own language. They have no need to borrow culture, trade goods, or prostrate themselves to a globalized world. They don't need your services and are unapologetic about not speaking English to foreigners no matter what country they come from.

Though English is the closest thing the world has to a global language, it is insufficient to just speak English. The Chinese study English as though success requires it. The Chinese do not speak English despite their hard work. I believe that the reason for the difficulty in learning English is due to the vast difference between the way Chinese and the English speaking Westerners think and interact. The Chinese have a much easier time learning languages from cultures more similar its own.

Koreans and Japanese struggle with learning English largely due to a fear of making mistakes and an intrinsically shy culture in which you interact mostly with those you already know. This allows for perfect reading and writing, but without busting past the fear barrier of talking with native speakers, the spoken side will not come.

In Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Philippines speak English, though accents may take getting used to for Westerners. Often the grammar is different as well, though what is correct grammar is a battle that can't be won by one side or the other. Language is intrinsically connected to culture and no one version can be more correct than another.

For those who have travelled, Scandinavians, Swiss, Germans, and much of the Middle East speak more-or-less perfect English. I find it fascinating though that over half of people who visit a country for the first time expect that their English will be sufficient to communicate with the locals. This misconception is true for both native English speakers and those who learned English in school.

I may be spoiled in that I enjoy language learning, but it is clear to me that when I am in a non-native English-speaking country, it is my responsibility to learn the language of the country where I am. Anything less is disrespectful, reflects badly on your home country, and worst of all, steals your opportunity to learn from another culture.


  1. Although there is a natural generosity of spirit that makes most people patient with a non-native speaker who is trying to communicate in the local language, that generosity is outweighed by frustration if the speaker is unable to communicate effectively in it. I remember one time in a restaurant or hotel in France where I had tried to speak French, but was asked to speak English because my interlocutor's English was much better than my French. Since then I have been a little shy about trying to speak the local language in another country, where my command of the language is weak. In other countries that I've been to (mostly in Europe), the locals know I'm from the States, and their English is usually better than my facility in their language, and I have often felt that they'd prefer that I speak English. It's different if I am living in the other country for an extended time. In that case, I want to learn the local language and use it when appropriate. But there too, if I don't yet speak the language well enough, my effort may seem more frustrating than appreciated to the locals.

  2. The French are more sensitive about foreigners bastardizing their language than most. In Europe, the level of English is high and it makes sense to use the best common language between speakers. If you travel in non-English speaking Asian countries, you'd do well to learn the local language.

  3. Ugh I was guilty of this when I was traveling in Europe. I think I'm a more sensitive traveler now, and I do try to learn the language wherever I may be. The locals really love it when I attempt to speak their language, even though I may be butchering the words.

  4. It doesn't take much knowledge of the language to connect with the locals. The most important thing is attitude and confidence. That, and good pronunciation.