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The many benefits of English-free travel

| 88 comments | Category: travel

When I meet other travellers, it’s great to be able to share stories and relate to them in ways that only nomads can. Because of this I do like to spend time with other travellers when I can.

However, most of my time is actually spent socialising with locals, most of whom speak little to no English.

It does frustrate me that many other travellers simply don’t care about learning the local language, sometimes not even learning basic pleasantries; even well seasoned travellers claim that English is all they will ever need.

Far be it from me to criticise their way of travel, since my own travels are perhaps ‘less authentic’ than others when you take into account how I have no interest in trying local beers (I don’t drink), or eating local food with meat/fish in them (I’m vegetarian). I make no exceptions to this.

I also prefer cities over villages, and some will tell you that you can only get a true sense of a culture in more traditional and simple backgrounds.

Perhaps for many travellers, I’m missing out on a lot and I understand where they are coming from. But there is one thing that I feel defines my own personal travels that I wish I would see more of in other travellers: speaking the local language.

It’s not that hard to get by in the local language

The obvious main reason not to try is because it’s too hard for you. This falsity all in your head.

There are so many things medium to long-term travellers (a genuine holiday of a few days is different) who bring their protective English bubble with them around the world don’t seem to realise:

  • It’s not that hard to learn a local language. Killing this ridiculous hard myth is a major focus of this blog. I hope to convince as many people as possible to ditch the BS natural-talent excuses, the vicious circle of “I need more time“… and to just speak!
  • Even if you’re in a country for just a few weeks, you can learn a huge amount of what you need from a phrasebook. One way to remember these phrases easier is explained in the Language Hacking Guide, but that chapter (along with another one) is free to anyone subscribed to the RSS of this blog or who joins the Language Hacking League e-mail list.
  • When you speak even the basics, almost all cultures in the world will patiently listen to you and try their best to understand you. The only exceptions to this in my experience have been a couple of major cities in France (that take some getting used to) and English speaking cultures. Just because you wouldn’t have the patience to listen to a foreigner stumble in English in your home town does not mean that they would not give you the benefit of the doubt when you are in theirs. Many are amazingly appreciative that you are trying.

You can save a LOT of money!

Travel isn’t as expensive as people think it is. But I’ve gotten incredible deals by haggling in the local language, even when my level of the language was weak. This is one reason I can live in such nice big apartments (to host Couchsurfers) all the time; my general policy is to avoid agencies with websites in English, or advertisements from the owners written in English.

Of course, I did that here in Medellín; here’s a video tour of where I’m living:

You might think that I have won the lottery to live here (especially for the amazing place I had in Rio), but I know for a fact that I’m paying much less for my rent in these places than most readers in North America and northern Europe are for simple apartments. This is obviously partially due to taking advantage of currency rates in South America, but it’s also largely thanks to searching and discussing prices in the local language.

Other travellers seem oblivious to the fact that they are always paying an “English tax” when dealing just with locals who speak English. Yes, English is “everywhere” and you can usually find what you need, but you are paying a price for the privilege to get filtered into the English-speaking camp nearly all the time.

A different side to culture

Travel for ‘culture’ is such a cliché that there is a whole industry in many places around feeding that culture to tourists. Seeing traditional dances, and trying (as I mentioned) food becomes the core of travel for so many people, and they do indeed learn a lot about the country from that.

The ‘culture’ I seek is simply to have real friends from the country. This is why I do end up avoiding other English speakers a lot. I’m not in Colombia to hang out with Australians or Brits. Even my current language mission is just a few hours a day, with the vast majority of my socialising being with Colombians and in Spanish.

Of course, there are plenty of locals who speak excellent English, but it’s a tiny demographic in many countries, even if you keep meeting them. The way we travel tends to have us gravitate towards who we are looking for. Because I am more random in who I meet, most of my friends couldn’t say much more in English than “the book is on the table”.

English’s “dominance” in the world is an illusion.

When your social circle only exposes you to the 1% of a country that speaks perfect English, or if you only speak with the upper class, then you will believe that illusion. Most of all the friends I have in the world can’t even read this blog without clicking the Google Translate option I installed for them.

If you rely on English you are mostly limiting your exposure to locals that specifically work in the tourist industry or the upper class who have graduated university, ignoring everyone else. If you travel to savour food, take photos, visit museums etc. then that’s great – but if you travel for cultural purposes, how is not trying to at least basically communicate with the vast majority of people you come across going to give you an authentic view of life in that country?

Such a hugely different experience

When I think back to the first six months I spent living in Spain, I would have to say that it was doing what I see most English speaking expats doing when they go abroad. I had lots of fun, went to lots of parties and had a great time, but I was living in a bubble. I would do anything to maintain my English bubble, like looking for restaurants with translated menus or relying on others to interpret for me when someone from outside our group would annoy us with Spanish.

My friends were all other foreigners or Spaniards that were more motivated to spend time with us to improve their English rather than out of genuine friendship.

Then one day I made a really important decision to really learn the language. The rest of my time in Spain and in pretty much every other country since has been completely different. I’ve talked to an old Czech lady about her experience in World War II, shouted conversations across a dinner table with a huge southern Italian family, and made lots of interesting small-talk with random interesting people at bus stops and parties.

Most important of all, I have gone out with those locals, and made some lifelong friends. If I was limited by one language to do this, then I would have quit my travels many years ago, but even after almost a decade it is constantly interesting to meet new people from across the world. Travel becomes an even more beautiful thing when you take the wrong language out of the mix.

The limits of my language means the limits of my world – Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Do you think you could expand your travel horizons and speak with some more locals? You might have to initially feel stupid due to making mistakes, and frustrated that you can’t party with other English speakers all the time, but the benefits are absolutely endless.

Let me know what you think in the comments below, or share this idea with your friends on Facebook.

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  • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

    English is becoming the default second language in the world.

    You’ve traveled enough to know that people get jobs overseas teaching English, but not many get jobs teaching Spanish, French, Irish or Esperanto. There are schools and academies all over the Earth for teaching English. English is the working language in India, even though about 15% of the population can speak it fluently (its growing). Over 300,000,000 Chinese are learning English to some degree. It is the unifying language in Nigeria, the largest country in Africa as well as South Africa, the richest country in Africa. It is also widely spoken in two of the largest commerce hubs of Asia: Singapore and Hong Kong. 90% of European students study English at some point in their studies and 1/3 of the population of EU countries speak English as a second language. English is also an official language in 70 countries, the most of any language in the world.

    English may not be universal in a literal sense of the word, but there is no other language which is even remotely close to English in terms of how widespread it is.

    I applaude what you are doing and do not doubt for a minute the benefits of knowing a local language. However, sometimes you just want to go on vacation or visit a place. Whatever cost savings you get for learning a local language are more than outweighed by the time spent learning the language. By your own admission in this post, if you have to spend several hours a day learning a language to get a discount on your rent, that isn’t that much different than working a job several hours a day for your rent. Also, you would only get the reduced rate after you’ve learned it, not when you arrive in a country with the intent to learn.

    You are a native English speaker who learns other languages to experience culture and learn. A non-native English speaker, especially one who wants to study or do business globally, would probably have a very different view of English and its importance. I’ve seen signs for English language schools all over the world and can’t say I’ve seen many for any other languages.

    For most people, language is a pragmatic thing. People don’t learn them for fun. Most people don’t have the luxury of spending hours a day to learn an obscure tongue just to drink with locals. If someone was to learn a second language, for most people in the world, that language would be English.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks a lot for the comment Gary!

      This post isn’t about getting jobs abroad, and I don’t doubt English’s importance as a “universal” language. I’m just saying for day-to-day life with non college graduates when abroad it is absolutely useless. No statistics you can provide change the fact that people don’t live their lives through that language and you have to be selective about who you talk to if you restrict yourself to English.

      As I mentioned in this post, for people on a vacation of a few days I wouldn’t insist they learn the language – the purpose of a holiday is not necessarily to meet random people, it’s to enjoy museums, scenery etc. If that’s the purpose, then learning a language is a distraction from that. If the purpose is cultural or for some sense of authenticity, then I think exclusively using English is too narrow to give enough.

      In some of your comment you seem to be suggesting that I’m pointing to an alternative universal language – this is far from the case. For business, use English. But all the signs in the world don’t change the fact that the vast majority of most countries can’t talk to you in that language.

      I also don’t have the “luxury” of spending hours a day in many cases – I’m sorry but that’s just laziness. I’ve worked over 60 hours a week in many jobs and still successfully learned the language. If people genuinely don’t want to learn a foreign language, that’s quite allright, but inventing excuses is not good enough.

      I agree with you that the second language of the world is English, but speaking a language from the wrong side of the world is not good enough in many cases. For some people it really is all they need to travel and that’s fine.

    • Katie

      This may be so, Gary, but knowing some French and Spanish opened doors to experiences in Spain and France that I’d never have otherwise, had I not made the attempt. Spending thousands of dollars to stay in a high end hotel and go on tours might be fun, but you can also get a nice coffee table book for a fraction of the cost. If you’re going to go through all that expense to get to a country, to find lodging and what-have-you, why not go a step further, and live amongst the locals. And I did meet plenty of people who spoke English, but we kept going back to Spanish, because it was easier. Why? Because I had made such an effort to learn what I could beforehand, and of course in the country itself, because the friends I met were so willing to help me. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my lifetime. I don’t regret it at all, and it doesn’t take a lot of time. It’s not even that hard.

      • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

        I am not anti-learning languages. I don’t deny that you can get a richer experience from knowing a language than not knowing it.

        However, I think if you limit your travels to places where you can speak the language….well, you limit your travels.

        There are 10,000 languages on planet Earth. I once met someone who could speak 12. That was the most I’ve ever seen. I once calculated that if I had to learn every language for every country I visited I would have to know about 35, not counting every village language in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, dialects of Chinese, or African languages.

        What I’m saying is, I’d rather travel and have a partial experience than have no experience because I don’t know the language.

        I seldom meet French people traveling unless I happen to be in a French speaking region (French Polynesia or New Caledonia). Likewise, I seldom meet Italians or Spaniards. I always meet Dutch and Germans. The big reason for this is because Dutch and Germans, on the whole, speak better English than French or Italians.

        Again, I’m not against learning other language, but I should be noted that this entire discussion is taking place in English among native English speakers. The reality is, if you are not a native English speaker, the #1 thing you can do if you want to travel ANYWHERE, is to learn English.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Gary your comment kind of proves my point that English limits and defines who we talk to. The fact that you rarely meet French people travelling is incredible to me because I meet *way more* of them than I ever do Dutch people.

          The French are just as interested in travel as anyone else (way more than others), but it’s true that they are not so interested in associating with English speakers. Speaking French means I meet French people every week no matter where I am.

          Can you not see that you are meeting Germans and Dutch (who tend to speak great English) not because their English abilities allow them to travel, but because your English abilities are limiting you to talking to just them?

          You don’t have to learn every language on planet earth. If you go to a country for a few days there is little need for that. I am mostly focusing this post on expats who live for months at a time in a country, but still wish travellers would learn basic pleasantries out of polite courtesy when in a country for a week or so.

          This post also doesn’t ever say to “limit your travels to places where you can speak the language”. If that were the case I never would have gone anywhere but to English speaking countries. I’m saying that investing the time to learning the language is worth it and a lot easier than people claim it is due to a badly organised academic situation they came from.

          This discussion is taking place in English because this blog is written in English and the audience is English speaking – I don’t see how that is relevant to people living life in a country itself.

          I’m also not talking about non native speakers who need to learn English. I can’t deny that English helps French speakers etc. travel the world. This post is targetted at native English speakers who spend longer than a week in a country who I feel are being lazy and inventing excuses.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Gary your comment kind of proves my point that English limits and defines who we talk to. The fact that you rarely meet French people travelling is incredible to me because I meet *way more* of them than I ever do Dutch people.

          The French are just as interested in travel as anyone else (way more than others), but it’s true that they are not so interested in associating with English speakers. Speaking French means I meet French people every week no matter where I am.

          Can you not see that you are meeting Germans and Dutch (who tend to speak great English) not because their English abilities allow them to travel, but because your English abilities are limiting you to talking to just them?

          You don’t have to learn every language on planet earth. If you go to a country for a few days there is little need for that. I am mostly focusing this post on expats who live for months at a time in a country, but still wish travellers would learn basic pleasantries out of polite courtesy when in a country for a week or so.

          This post also doesn’t ever say to “limit your travels to places where you can speak the language”. If that were the case I never would have gone anywhere but to English speaking countries. I’m saying that investing the time to learning the language is worth it and a lot easier than people claim it is due to a badly organised academic situation they came from.

          This discussion is taking place in English because this blog is written in English and the audience is English speaking – I don’t see how that is relevant to people living life in a country itself.

          I’m also not talking about non native speakers who need to learn English. I can’t deny that English helps French speakers etc. travel the world. This post is targetted at native English speakers who spend longer than a week in a country who I feel are being lazy and inventing excuses.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Gary your comment kind of proves my point that English limits and defines who we talk to. The fact that you rarely meet French people travelling is incredible to me because I meet *way more* of them than I ever do Dutch people.

          The French are just as interested in travel as anyone else (way more than others), but it’s true that they are not so interested in associating with English speakers. Speaking French means I meet French people every week no matter where I am.

          Can you not see that you are meeting Germans and Dutch (who tend to speak great English) not because their English abilities allow them to travel, but because your English abilities are limiting you to talking to just them?

          You don’t have to learn every language on planet earth. If you go to a country for a few days there is little need for that. I am mostly focusing this post on expats who live for months at a time in a country, but still wish travellers would learn basic pleasantries out of polite courtesy when in a country for a week or so.

          This post also doesn’t ever say to “limit your travels to places where you can speak the language”. If that were the case I never would have gone anywhere but to English speaking countries. I’m saying that investing the time to learning the language is worth it and a lot easier than people claim it is due to a badly organised academic situation they came from.

          This discussion is taking place in English because this blog is written in English and the audience is English speaking – I don’t see how that is relevant to people living life in a country itself.

          I’m also not talking about non native speakers who need to learn English. I can’t deny that English helps French speakers etc. travel the world. This post is targetted at native English speakers who spend longer than a week in a country who I feel are being lazy and inventing excuses.

          • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

            I meet whoever is in the hotel/hostel I’m staying at. I can understand if someone is speaking French or Dutch, even if I myself can’t speak the language.

            The difference is you mainly travel in Europe and I have no doubt you’ll find more French in Europe because there are more French than Dutch. Get out of Europe and you’ll find way more Dutch than French. Same with Germans and Scandinavians.

            Again, I’m not against learning other languages, but if you want to travel extensively, the one language you need to know is English.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            Particular hostels have particular clientelle. This shows nothing about who is really travelling. I meet people in parties and on the street and only stay in hostels or hotels in my first days.

            I have spent almost three years outside of Europe and met plenty of French speakers. I hung out with them in India, in Bangkok, in Buenos Aires, in Recife in Brazil and this weekend in Medellín, Colombia. I could probably count the small number of Dutch people I’ve met. Rather than conclude that Dutch people don’t travel, it’s more logical that I simply don’t expose myself to situations where I would find many Dutch people.

            To rephrase what you just said, get out of the English-website or English-book recommended hostels and you’ll find way more French ;)

            Once again, I’m not talking about travelling extensively. Moving country regularly as you do requires different priorities. But if someone wants to spend more than a few days in a country it’s lazy to not learn the language. If they are travelling extensively that’s different.

          • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

            Benny, here is some data which reinforces my point:

            In the 2005 tsunami, over 1,000 Europeans were killed. Almost all of whom were traveling.

            Here is a breakdown of deaths per million inhabitants by nations not directly hit by the tsunami:

            Sweden 58.10
            Finland 33.40
            Norway 17.30
            Switzerland 14.40
            Austria 10.30
            Denmark 8.32
            Germany 6.75
            Hong Kong 5.69
            Luxembourg 4.00
            United Kingdom 2.40
            Malta 2.38
            Estonia 2.24
            Singapore 1.80
            New Zealand 1.61
            France 1.45
            Australia 1.17

            What you notice is that the norther european nations with higher levels of English speaking were higher victims than southern european nations, where you see lowers levels of english. Rates of functional English in Scandinavian countries is 80-90%. Many of the French victims were on the French island of Reunion, not in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand or India.

            Not only have I noticed more Northern Europeans than French/Southern Europeans travel, everyone other than you I’ve met has noticed the same thing. I’m not even sure why this is a controversial statement. English is the language of tourism. If you study tourism in college, you pretty much have to learn English. The International Civil Aviation Organisation has mandated that all flight crew and flight controllers dealing with international flights be fluent in English.

            Of the French people you met outside of Europe, how many could speak English vs a local language?

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            Gary, using tsunami data to prove a point is clutching at straws. The coastal areas affected by the tsunami do not reflect how people in the world travel. The French travellers I know are less likely to spent their world trip on beaches. I find the French to be more interested in cultural exploration than their English-speaking beach-bum counterparts.

            Based on that data, there are more world travellers from MALTA than there are from France. That’s nothing short of ridiculous.

            Everyone other than me has noticed the same thing as you because they are focusing on speaking English the whole time! Maybe you think I’m delusional, but my experience is very different from those you meet because I don’t socialise nearly exclusively with English speakers. If you find a thousand people that corroborate your story that still proves nothing about life in a country if all of them are exclusively English-speaking tourists.

            The French I met could speak English, but you are taking this thread down a completely irrelevant path. I am not talking about needing English to check into your hostels around the world and how much non-native-English speakers should speak English. I’m talking about people’s experience in the country and how many locals speak English. I’m sorry but so far most of your evidence is totally irrelevant to what I’m talking about.

            I agree with you that English is important for tourists. I don’t agree that English is the do-all-end-all for people who want to live in a country. Please notice the difference. This blog is not written for tourists. Proving how important English is in the tourism industry is irrelevant to an expat’s non-touristic experience.

          • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

            No, based on the data, Maltese travel more as a percentage of the population. The data was per million people. Also, I’m using it to illustrate a point. (see below)

            …Also, since when do French not go to beaches? That is an assertion which is totally pulled out of your ass. I’m sure you’ve been to the south of France, Tahiti or New Caledonia where there are plenty of topless French women and dues wearing their banana hammock speedos. Most of the countries on the list do not speak English as their first language, so you can hardly lump the Finns and Swedes with the uncultured British and Americans. (which again, is just a stereotype)

            You said that only the upper 1% of people in a country speak English. This is not true, certainly not in Europe. 13% of EU citizens speak English as a first language, and 38% claim some to be competent enough to have a conversation. This percentage is much higher in the north than in the south, which was the entire point I was trying to make. (see above) Because English is so widely spoken around the world, people who can speak English have more travel opportunities available to them. Hence, more Northern Europeans travel than southern Europeans because of their English proficiency. English opens doors.

            What I object to Benny is the tone of the post was very much: if you don’t know another language, you are doing it wrong.

            For most people, language is a means, not an end. For you it is an end. You travel to learn languages. Your travel schedule is set up to learn particular languages. You have a language blog and I’m sure one day you will write a language book.

            For most people traveling, exploring and learning is the end. A language just helps them achieve that end. I agree with you 100% that you can experience more if you know the local language. But we are mortal creatures with a finite amount of time to live. We can’t learn every language. The decision to learn a language implicitly involves the decision to NOT learn something else. It is unavoidable.

            I spent about 45 days in Japan. I picked up a little Japanese and managed to get by and had a great time. Would I have a had a better experience if I knew fluent Japanese? Yes I would have, but it would have required me to not visit other places with other languages that I would also have had to learn to have a better experience.

            To use some terms from economics, the marginal benefit to learning Japanese was less than the marginal benefit to visiting Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Yes, talking to locals in their language is great, but getting to experience other cultures to some degree was even greater (for me). In other words, I’ll take a little bit of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia over a whole bunch of just Japan.

            Every day I have to remind myself that maybe one in a million people on Earth can do what I do. As much as I love traveling and as much as I think it is a good thing, there are people out there who’s life circumstances aren’t like mine. They just can’t do it.

            Likewise, you’ve been tossing around terms like “bogus” and “lazy” which give the impression you are looking down at anyone who doesn’t treat languages like you do, or if you don’t speak the local language, you are somehow traveling wrong. I’m good at math. I have a degree in it. I can’t understand how people can not be good at math, but it is obviously true. Likewise, you might be good at languages, but not everyone else is going to be to the same degree you are.

            I’ve told you personally that learning Spanish is one of my goals. That being said, I’ve managed to survive traveling to over 80 countries with English and bits of other things I’ve picked up along the way.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            Looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree Gary. I’m not looking down on anyone, but I am saying that in my experience of speaking with thousands of failed and successful language learners, laziness IS the reason they don’t learn the language. All other excuses (lack of time, talent, genes, money etc.) are fed by this.

            The vast majority of the planet speak more than one language, whether that is agreement with your statistics about English being a dominant second language for modern tourism, or because of their history such as India’s many languages or trade between countries. I’m sorry but your good-at-Maths example IS a good excuse for me to use the word “bogus”.

            The majority of the planet speaks more than one language, so English speakers can invent all the excuses they like, but they are just as naturally talented as anyone else.

            Yes, the tone of this post is “English-speakers get off your lazy ass and learn a language if you plan to be more than just a tourist”. I stand by that.

            I don’t think in terms of economic marginal benefits. Right now I’m in Colombia so I should speak Spanish if I want to meet non-tourists. If I was passing through Colombia for a weekend then the arguments in this post would crumble and getting by with English would have to do.

            I do hope you keep up with your goal to learn Spanish, but I will continue with this aggressive tone to slap some sense into English speaking travellers. Honestly I don’t think it counts as much for your situation because of how much you do travel.

            But I feel that way more than 1 in a million can travel, and do travel, and some of them pick just one or two countries to do it in. This isn’t better or worse, but if they do pick one then they should learn its language. I do understand that from your perspective it’s less practical, but there are many other travellers who need a serious kick up the ass ;)

          • http://twitter.com/mhhall Helen Hall

            What you notice is that the norther european nations with higher levels of English speaking were higher victims than southern european nations

            I am not a mathematician (though I am married to one!) and those figures look decidedly off to me. If language really is the deciding factor, why are Australians and New Zealanders down at the bottom of the list when they are native speakers of English. Heavens, the UK is quite low on the list and we invented English!

            By using numbers killed per million of the populations, you are skewing the numbers badly. The UK is hugely bigger than Sweden in terms of population, but we have a much wider gap between the richest and the poorest than they do in Sweden, thus probably more Swedes as a percentage of the population travel, but in terms of actual numbers, I suspect that more Brits do.

            In fact, your observations regarding the number of Scandinavians and northern Europeans visiting distant parts of the world probably relates far more to income and the relative wealth of the countries’ inhabitants than it does to languages spoken.

          • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

            Chicago isn’t in Europe, but I find more French-speaking people here than German or Dutch.

            Perhaps you haven’t considered that much of Canada and a large part of Africa speak French. Not to mention that French was the world’s “second language” long before English became popular…

          • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

            That sort of proves my point. The Dutch know English so they wouldn’t be speaking Dutch, if they are in the US. Also, most Quebecois speak English now days. They are over represented in Canadian federal positions because they have a bilingualism requirement and Quebecois are far more likely to be bilingual than Anglophone Canadians.

            French hasn’t been the Lingua Franca since Napoleonic era. Even in former French Indochina, you will be hard pressed to find anyone who speaks French save for old people. Everyone young will be learning English if they are learning another language.

            Outside of Europe and Quebec, most countries that speak French today are desperately poor: in particular Haiti and North Africa. I also can’t say I meet many Haitians traveling.

          • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

            No, no, no…. that’s not what you said. You said, (quoting):
            “Get out of Europe and you’ll find way more Dutch than French. Same with Germans and Scandinavians.”

            But I can tell you that while there do tend to be many Germans here, there are very few Dutch or Scandinavians, and many more French in my experience.

            But this isn’t about what country people are from anyway… this is about speaking a foreign language. So how does your claim that French aren’t good at English help your argument against learning French?

            I think you’re arguing in circles now, and that’s usually a sign that you’re not actually trying to prove anything, but rather that you’re just intent on not “losing” an argument. Out of respect for Benny, and since this isn’t my blog, I’m going to end my involvement here. If you so desperately need to “win”, please feel free to respond. (I know you will!) You can rest assured I won’t refute any more of what you say.

          • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

            1) I do see way more Dutch then French. I don’t know where “here” is for you, but having been to 80 countries, either the French are all hiding from me, or there are more Dutch travelers who visit non-French speaking countries. I’d take my experience over just 1 city in the United States. When I go to French speaking countries, I meet mostly French tourists. When I do meet French people in non-French speaking countries, they speak English.

            2) I’m not against speaking/learning a foreign language. I’m saying that English is the de facto language of travel. People who know English travel more than people who don’t. Period. English is the one language that will let you visit most of the world.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            Gary, you’ve been to 80 countries, but I’ve been travelling for 8 years (only 20 countries). The French are not hiding from you, you are hiding from them because of the choices you make as an English speaking traveller.

            But putting aside this tangent about how many French travellers there are, or what their English skills are, which has nothing to do with the topic at hand (i.e. what native English speakers language skills are), you continue to say something that myself and I’m sure Randy agree with: yes English is the de facto language of tourism. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the non-English travel experience and the need to learn languages as a non-tourist.

            If you aren’t against speaking or learning a foreign language, then why are you defending the use of English so much? I just see your arguments as encouraging Americans, Brits, Ozzies etc. to not bother learning languages since English is “all they need”.

            If there is no money involved (hotels, package tours, expensive restaurants etc.) then interactions with locals using English will not get you very far at all. And so, most travellers only associate with other travellers. I find this sad and am trying to change it.

          • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

            1) My entire original comment was in response you saying “English’s “dominance” in the world is an illusion.”

            English is the most dominate language. Nothing else is a close second. It is the international language of anything which is international.

            You said that only 1% of a non-English speaking country will speak English. That is also not true, especially in Europe.

            Learning English is a necessity for traveling in 2010. My whole point of northern Europeans and tsunami victims was that people who speak English have more travel opportunities, and that Northern Europeans travel more than Southern Europeans for that reason.

            2) My thing is travel. I want people to travel and to see and explore the world. To do that, you pretty much have to know English, regardless of what your first language is. All other languages are a luxury unless you want to live in a particular country.

            I don’t want people to think there are more barriers to traveling than really exist. If people really believe that only 1% of a country speaks English and you can’t talk to anyone, they are more likely to just not go at all, than go with the intent of becoming fluent.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            1) Just because I said English’s dominance is an illusion, does not mean I was implying there was an alternative. Of course nothing else is a close second.

            But once you get out of the tourist industry and ESPECIALLY once you are out of Europe, then English will get you next to nothing. If you want to encourage people to travel as tourists, then by all means remind them of how easy it is with English. I’m not talking about tourists here. For people who want to live in a country, it’s ignorant to think that they should maintain their English-speaking-bubble in the long term.

            It can be done however. I met a man in Prague who had been living there for 11 years and was married with children and had nothing more than a few phrases of Czech. All of his friends were Americans or Brits. I find that really sad.

            2) Saying that northern European travels more than southern ones is a huge simplification when you say that it is entirely due to their English skills. Eastern and Southern European countries have lower GDPs and poorer citizens than northern ones do. THAT’s why they don’t travel, not because they can’t deal with inseparable verbs.

            3) Keep in mind that I am trying to show people that learning a language is way easier than they think it is. I also want to encourage travel, and saying that you “can’t talk to anyone” is a gross exaggeration. With just a tiny bit of work (not years of dull academic learning) people can get by quite well when they put their mind to it, despite any excuses of lack of time etc. they may have.

        • http://twitter.com/mhhall Helen Hall

          this entire discussion is taking place in English among native English speakers

          Well, yes. Isn’t that the point! :) Benny’s mission is to encourage native English speakers to take the plunge and learn other languages. Monoglots are actually in the minority in the world, but I suspect most of them have English as their first language.

          The thing is, as you say, English is the obvious second language for anyone who didn’t grow up speaking it, but that doesn’t mean that we first language English speakers shouldn’t bother learning another language.

          Most people don’t travel all over the world to lots of different destinations. They have jobs and families and can’t afford the time and the money, but they often have a favourite holiday destination that they return to year after year. Because languages are taught so badly in British schools, people are put off even trying, whereas if you find the right learning method that works for you, learning a language can be a lot of fun and you could get more out of your holidays.

          And Benny’s right, not everyone does speak English. We were in Portugal a few years ago in a little town in the mountains. Though English was the official language of the conference we were attending, if we wanted to buy water from the little corner shop, we had to do our best with phrases from the book (and it worked!) and while we were out sightseeing one day, we had a short conversation with an elderly man who thought we were French (Brits go to the coast generally and the only visitors they normally got were French). OK, that conversation was in rusty school French not Portuguese, but it wasn’t in English.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            Thanks for sharing the story! :) My argument for people who see English everywhere is that they would have conveniently forgotten how the guy they bought water from didn’t understand them or they’d avoid non-English speakers when out sightseeing. ;)

            Either point could be seen as the only right one depending on how selective your memory is. I could conveniently forget everyone who speaks excellent English, but the point is there is BOTH kinds everywhere and the balance is not always in the favour of more English speakers and I wish people who think English is universal would realise that.

    • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

      The time invested to learn the language only equates to the time spent working to pay for the difference in price up until the point where you’ve learned the language. If you travel for several years in South America, for example, you would continue to pay higher prices and thus continue to be forced to work those extra hours, while someone else would only have to learn Spanish ONCE, and then they would enjoy the benefit of that throughout South America, Central America, Mexico, and Spain…. not to mention the instant head-start that Spanish would give them toward Portuguese, Italian, and French.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

        I’ve never heard this time invested to learn vs time spent working excuse before. I’ll have to add it to my ever growing list of bogus reasons not to bother with learning a language.

        • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

          Yeah. With so many reasons already, you might as well just give up, because clearly you’re never going to succeed, and even if you do it will just have been a waste of time.

        • http://bestofthenoobs.blogspot.com/ Edward Chien

          Mmm… Gary was just responding to what you said about saving money–IF you won’t be in country long. I didn’t see in any of his posts that he disagreed with what you said about being more than a tourist, and I didn’t see in any of your posts that you disagreed with what he said about looking around a country for a short while. As far as I can tell, you’re both right and agree with each other.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

            We definitely agree with one another on pretty much all the facts – which is why I see most of this discussion as missing the point of the post. If you aren’t going to be in the country long, then fine – don’t learn to speak the language. But I still think spending five minutes to memorize pleasantries could get you a long way.

        • Holly Bathgate

          See, I don’t think this is bogus, I just think it requires context. I doubt I would have enjoyed spending three months of my life learning Dutch so my long weekend there would be more ‘meaningful’ – I did, however, couch surf when I went to the Netherlands and that gave me a cultural experience which I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in a hostel.

          If I had an interest in a language or intended to spend a lot of time there I would make an effort to learn it. Otherwise, I have found that reading through a phrasebook on the plane is enough to endear people to you and they will appreciate the simple effort. I always feel guilty being an English speaker abroad and using it, but it really is the lingua franca. My German friends don’t mind speaking English in a hostel, so why should I?

    • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

      Absolutely. I’m glad you put this in perspective, I actually agree with both you AND Benny: English IS as important and widespread and useful as you said it is, and Benny is also absolutely correct that you really need to be able to speak the local language if you ever want to really learn about the local culture and the people, you just can’t do it otherwise.

      I love learning languages and believe it to be MASSIVELY important, probably THE most important thing other than actually going to the country itself, when it comes to learning about another country and its culture, and I plan on learning a dozen or more languages in my lifetime. I do it primarily so I can converse with, socialize with, and date the locals and by doing so understand them and their culture. However, I feel as though I won the language-lottery so to speak by ending up as a native English speaker thanks to my country of birth. If you had to pick one that language out of all of them that was, BY FAR, the most useful for a traveler (or business person…or politician…or just about anybody else in general) it would EASILY be English.

      I have a huge advantage in being a native English speaker, I’ve already got the most useful language in the world, the most widely spoken one, down pat before I even get started. It’s fantastic :D

      Cheers,
      Andrew

  • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

    English is becoming the default second language in the world.

    You’ve traveled enough to know that people get jobs overseas teaching English, but not many get jobs teaching Spanish, French, Irish or Esperanto. There are schools and academies all over the Earth for teaching English. English is the working language in India, even though about 15% of the population can speak it fluently (its growing). Over 300,000,000 Chinese are learning English to some degree. It is the unifying language in Nigeria, the largest country in Africa as well as South Africa, the richest country in Africa. It is also widely spoken in two of the largest commerce hubs of Asia: Singapore and Hong Kong. 90% of European students study English at some point in their studies and 1/3 of the population of EU countries speak English as a second language. English is also an official language in 70 countries, the most of any language in the world.

    English may not be universal in a literal sense of the word, but there is no other language which is even remotely close to English in terms of how widespread it is.

    I applaude what you are doing and do not doubt for a minute the benefits of knowing a local language. However, sometimes you just want to go on vacation or visit a place. Whatever cost savings you get for learning a local language are more than outweighed by the time spent learning the language. By your own admission in this post, if you have to spend several hours a day learning a language to get a discount on your rent, that isn’t that much different than working a job several hours a day for your rent. Also, you would only get the reduced rate after you’ve learned it, not when you arrive in a country with the intent to learn.

    You are a native English speaker who learns other languages to experience culture and learn. A non-native English speaker, especially one who wants to study or do business globally, would probably have a very different view of English and its importance. I’ve seen signs for English language schools all over the world and can’t say I’ve seen many for any other languages.

    For most people, language is a pragmatic thing. People don’t learn them for fun. Most people don’t have the luxury of spending hours a day to learn an obscure tongue just to drink with locals. If someone was to learn a second language, for most people in the world, that language would be English.

  • Yuzhou

    Benny,

    I respect your drive and your achievements. I also find that you get to understand and connect with people on a completely different and more intimate level if you speak their language. I always like to discuss a wide range of topics that go beyond simple niceties but I find that the proficiency level required to do that is quite high. I love to be eloquent and hate to be struggling. For example humor requires quite good command of the language. I am often frustrated by my shortcomings in other languages that prevent me from expressing what I really mean or who I really am. That’s why speaking English can be very convenient in many cases.

    I have a question: How would you rank the proficiency levels of the languages you speak?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Of course speaking English is convenient, but sometimes people need to hear the “inconvenient truth”.
      I wonder if people think that I skipped over the frustrating stage of struggling in a language? I didn’t make any quantum leaps, I stuck through it and had a frustrating time (several times over) and came out the other side able to have deep conversations.
      Now I can tell and understand jokes in a language. Giving up was not the way I did this.
      How you rank your level depends on too many factors to make it universally useful. I’d say C2 (based on institutions like Goethe Institut or the the Academie Française’s understanding of the level) in the 8 languages listed on the right, or “fluency” as I’ve defined it elsewhere. Obviously this is not straight cut because in my recent C2 test in German I didn’t pass the listening, but did for the other 4 parts, but I still consider my level more or less C2. I usually just prefer to say “fluent”.
      Hungarian is still intermediate and a few other languages are just a few phrases.

      • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

        Not only did you come out the other side, several times, but also in doing so, you’ve made yourself more comfortable with challenges each time. You’re strengthening your will… in my opinion, one of the most valuable results of learning a foreign language.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose that the added advantage to speaking thier language is that you may not actually be considered English and so they may actually respect you more. I know that sounds stupid but we are assholes.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I’m sorry but that does sound a bit stupid… the only country where I felt any aggro towards the English was France (when my accent was still the same as any English speaker’s), and that was only for particular narrow minded people. Everywhere else people treat me the same whether my accent gives me away as an English-speaker or not.

      • Anonymous

        That’s okay. It’s just my opinion. There are many reasons why I think this but taking for example last week. I went and had a meal in an English restaurant and the service was terrible. They were so rude. On the otherhand, in an Indian restaurant the service was faultless. They were more concerned by making you enjoy your meal than the end product, that being money. I also think we are extremely xenophobic and that’s why we don’t embrace their ways.

        You don’t need to be polite if you are to reply. I’ll respect your opinion either way.

  • http://www.prolificliving.com/blog Farnoosh

    Benny, I am so happy to see how well you have settled and what a lovely place! And thank you _ THANK YOU – for spreading the message which I always say – to learn a little about the local language or it would be so rude to just drop by. In Bali, I learned how to say just thank you in Balinese and I said it all the time (along with a bow) and in Argentina, I learned how to say happy new year – and I said it all the time (we were there for new year’s). I speak Persian, French, and I have been exposed to Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese, Italian and Japanese but they are still in the works….or long forgotten since I lived in those countries…alas, you inspire me so much!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      You don’t do too bad on the inspiring yourself Farnoosh! Was a pleasure to meet you at blogworld :)

  • http://twitter.com/Gemzaar Gemma Lenton

    Every time I read your newest post it motivates me even more to become fluent in French and I think you are totally right about getting out of the English-Bubble. I think for many it is overcoming the fear of looking stupid while speaking to locals. But like you have shown, you need to step out of your comfort zone in order to really do well in language.
    I’m hoping that living with a French family will immerse me in the language and culture, even if the parents ask me to speak English to their children. For me, moving to different country at 18, I’m not sure I would be able to cope from living at home straight away to renting a apartment in a different country. So hopefully staying with a family will help me connect with locals and in some ways stay away from the trap of speaking to other English people while I’m there. Anyway thanks for another great post. :]

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Living with a family is an excellent means of immersion! I got to spend a month with an Italian family and it was tough since they used lots of slang and romano dialect that my Spanish didn’t help me with at all, but that pressure forced me to improve dramatically quicker.

      You will feel stupid, but please remember that that’s a necessary step! I have felt stupid for most of the last seven years from constantly learning a new language. Real strength comes from not being a constant winner, but from failing so many times that success has to seep through ;)

      Living with a family means they will see your personality and have extra patience to make sure to help you understand :) Best of luck with the experience!

  • Anonymous

    While many people you meet while traveling may speak English, there are also many that do not. Just by learning a few pleasantries, you can make a real connection to people, who appreciate that you’re trying.

    In the small village of Vallendar where I was staying in Germany, the local cafe owners didn’t speak English, yet by knowing some German, I was able to order a different delicious pastry every morning, as well as build a rapport with the owners. Even little things can add a lot to a good travel experience… or make a good adventure, great.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Good point. Even in Germany (a supposedly very English literate country) I met countless people who couldn’t speak English at all.

      Of course if you gravitate towards English speakers you will believe that “all” Germans speak English. My experience in Germany was much richer because I could speak with so many other people that an English-only lifestyle would have prevented.

      • http://www.catherineeisele.com Catherine Eisele

        This is in response to this comment and the comment earlier about attitudes toward English speakers. As an American living in Germany, who came here two years ago knowing virtually none of the language (I came to study classical music -from a Finnish professor- and perform, learning the language is just an AWESOME by-product!), the varying reactions to my spoken German are quite noticeable. While all Germans can tell I´m not a native speaker (not so much from accent, but from grammatical errors!), it´s the other, predominately Russian and eastern European, foreigners who assume I´m German until I say otherwise. And this attitude shift is visible after the “where are you from” question comes into play. It´s not a bad thing, just more of an “oh! you´re not German either! Then you know what it´s like!” realization and suddenly we are on the same “side”.

        It is interesting to note that many Germans ask whether I am English or American and after hearing the answer, they very very honestly state their negative views on my country. While I´ve gotten used to the sometimes brutal honesty here, I cannot imagine insulting the home country of a foreigner living in the US, especially after just learning their name. I know not to take any of it personally, but I still find it weird.

        Love the blog!

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Yes, Germans are brutally honest. Takes a lot of getting used to. They didn’t say anything negative about Ireland, but made me scratch my head about other things! ;)

          In America I should point out that I found the opposite just as annoying. People in the states are so sensitive that honesty goes out the window most of the time and people present you with a cheesy fake smile. In Germany when you ask someone how they are doing you get a true answer. In the states the answer is always “fine” or “great”. I prefer somewhere between both extremes (frank honesty that I never got in the states, but perhaps combined with a bit of American sensitivity occasionally).

          Not taking it personally is the key. Let them say it once and then they can be your friend.

  • Anonymous

    While many people you meet while traveling may speak English, there are also many that do not. Just by learning a few pleasantries, you can make a real connection to people, who appreciate that you’re trying.

    In the small village of Vallendar where I was staying in Germany, the local cafe owners didn’t speak English, yet by knowing some German, I was able to order a different delicious pastry every morning, as well as build a rapport with the owners. Even little things can add a lot to a good travel experience… or make a good adventure, great.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Any choice I’d tell you to make would be riddled with my own priorities. It’s better to talk with people who know you personally. I usually pick a place because of the place and how I’d feel there regardless of how hard or easy the language is, but I know the Turkish vs Indonesian language issue would be a bigger part of the equation for many people.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I have experienced forgetfulness. I had an annoying afternoon were I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to say “bucket” in English, and the double negative influence of Latin languages meant I was saying “I don’t know nobody/have nothing”. Even though I write in English every day, I rarely speak it and this reflects on my conversations, which now tend to be way more formal than they used to be.

    I find Erasmus to be interesting as the social network usually has three groups in any country; the non-native English speakers (including northern Europeans) who speak English together, the English only speakers (usually not a lot since there is not as much interest in languages in English speaking countries) and those who speak the local language together. It’s easy to see these groups develop initially and I choose to socialise with the latter every time.

    I answer the earplugs/stethoscope question in a dedicated blog post if you look a few weeks back.

    Best of luck in your bilingualism mission :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Hi Ben,
    I’m not really interested in sharing my expenses with thousands of strangers – for some good financial transparency I highly recommend you check out http://manvsdebt.com
    The best I can do is vaguely say that it’s cheaper for me to live in a palace in Colombia than it is for Americans to live in a simple apartment ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Hi Ben,
    I’m not really interested in sharing my expenses with thousands of strangers – for some good financial transparency I highly recommend you check out http://manvsdebt.com
    The best I can do is vaguely say that it’s cheaper for me to live in a palace in Colombia than it is for Americans to live in a simple apartment ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Hi Ben,
    I’m not really interested in sharing my expenses with thousands of strangers – for some good financial transparency I highly recommend you check out http://manvsdebt.com
    The best I can do is vaguely say that it’s cheaper for me to live in a palace in Colombia than it is for Americans to live in a simple apartment ;)

  • Anonymous

    This is such an excellent post. I’ve never heard someone say something like this in public before. I spent almost three weeks in The Netherlands and Belgium this summer speaking only Dutch. When other travelers found out I knew Dutch, they were amazed. After all, why would someone learn Dutch, when the Dutch and Belgians speak such good English? But like you explain in the post, I felt I was able to make an amazing connection with them while speaking in *their* language.

    I actually thought about making a site or a blog post called the “anti-tourist” to describe how I travel: only in hostels, only speaking the local language, always alone. I don’t go see the tourist sites, I wander through the street, seeking random, dadaist encounters with the local populace

    I found out there is sort of an anti-tourist manifesto up already. Apparently the guy who wrote this up has written a book as well about his adventures in Russia called “Lost Cosmonaut”. Might be worth a read:
    http://www.danielkalder.com/antitourism.html

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, but I want to be clear that I am not an anti-tourist. I just want to encourage more people to learn the local language. I can’t encourage this “anti-tourist” sentiment for the following reasons:

      1. There’s nothing wrong with tourism. It is the backbone of what makes travel so easy nowadays and a very noble industry to be a part of. I have absolutely nothing against people who travel somewhere for a brief time if that’s all they can or want to do.

      2. Staying at a hostel just makes you a different type of tourist. DEFINITELY not an anti-tourist. If you want a more “authentic” experience you should stay with locals by renting a room in an apartment with them or staying with a family. Hostels represent the image of a “tourist” even more than most hotels in my opinion. I stay in hostels occasionally, but accept that I’m not likely to meet any locals there.

      3. Avoiding “tourist sites” is a huge pity just for the sake of pride. They are sites for a reason; they hold great beauty or historical significance. Just because they are highly visited does not mean they should be avoided. I encourage random encounters, but not intentionally avoiding something that is actually interesting or important.

      4. A typical tourist may occasionally annoy me a little, but nothing I do is in any way superior to them. If you are on a holiday and accept that you genuinely have no interest in making local friends, I have no argument with you because your priorities are different to mine. I do (as this post suggests) get frustrated with expats living in a country for a long time not learning the language, but they aren’t quite “tourists”.

      5. I’m afraid I find “anti-tourist” pride way more annoying than someone who embraces doing everything packaged to them by tourist industries. It’s hypocritical – we are all tourists in one way or another. You have to take the same flight as them and get the same taxi or shuttle from the airport as them (something locals may not ever do), and if you are not an expat you are still “touring” in one way or another.

      I recommend you read Rolf Pott’s book “Vagabonding” as he discusses this topic. There is an age old pride among some travellers as not being identified as a tourist. I’d probably be annoyed if someone called me a tourist, but we are all actually different shades of the same thing: a foreigner temporarily in the country.

      The way we decide to do this depends on our priorities and I only criticise people who claim to be getting a full experience out of the country in the long term when they are not due to their preference for English.

      I’m glad you travelled with Dutch but I found that link you gave grossly hypocritical – it says not to brag about your travels, but I find anti-tourists to constantly brag about the fact that they are anti-tourists. It’s ridiculous. I shall be avoiding his book after reading that horrible manifesto.

  • http://twitter.com/ryangoesabroad Ryan

    Hey Benny- Great post! I buy the entire philosophy you’ve presented here. It is challenging to learn a new language, but we just have to push through to experience the benefits, especially native English speakers, who can get lazy… I am trying to learn Spanish as best I can before going to Colombia in January, but when I get there I am going to insist on Spanish-only interactions, no matter how good I am… It’s fluency or bust.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      You’ll love Colombia. They are very helpful with Spanish learners here. Sorry I’ll miss you!

  • http://beyondbounds.org/ Jason Sharp

    Really great post. I love what you are promoting here. I see so many people in Beijing that simply don’t learn the language for a million reasons, then even after being here for YEARS, they still need my help ordering food at certain restaurants. I guess I don’t help the situation much by being their walking translator…

    I really enjoyed the argument between you and Gary – it’s really good to see how other people see travel, culture, and the world. I have one question though for both of you:

    How do you personally define culture?

    Gary mentions the benefits of experiencing small pieces of many cultures rather than staying in one country for a long time and experiencing one culture in depth. I searched his site for what he means by culture, but I wasn’t able to find a definition.

    I’m sure there is a lot that one can take away from a few days or weeks in each place, but in my experience culture is a lot more than just surface differences. I don’t think eating with Chopsticks vs Eating with knife and fork are a major difference – that’s just a superficial difference. What can you really learn from that?

    I think it takes a long time to really get past the surface differences into the real differences in the way that people think and that takes a combination of things, including language (as, well, the local people think in the local language). No matter how fluent a Chinese person is in English, 100 conversations in English will tell you less than one conversation in Chinese about that person and culture. Too many things are lost in translation.

    You and Gary travel for different reasons. You seem to travel for a more micro understanding of the world – what makes people tick / culture etc – while Gary seems to travel for a macro view of the world. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it. You guys are arguing about different things, so there really isn’t a disagreement, but just different goals (beside the tangents about the tourism industry).

    I really enjoyed Gary’s post at Tim Ferriss’s blog (http://tinyurl.com/2ueglzx) just in case you haven’t read it.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I’m not interested in defining culture. I don’t eat in typical restaurants and I generally live in the more touristed central parts of cities, but I almost exclusively socialise with locals. Local friends are my ‘culture’ and other things are other people’s cultures.

      I agree that this argument with Gary was about different goals. I feel it didn’t really touch on the purpose of this post at all.

      If you look at that post you’ll see I was among the first to comment to thank him for the post but warn him about his one point about English. ;)

      • http://beyondbounds.org/ Jason Sharp

        I didn’t read the comments until you mentioned that! It seems that Tim agrees with you as well, and I do too. Thanks for mentioning that or I would have missed a good discussion.

  • http://MiltBlog.com Milt

    Diggin the discussion here,
    Personally I’m not into language learning, but I still think what your doing with this whole site here Benny is awesome.
    I travelled alot and yes of course English is the universal language but a speaking a little of the local lingo goes a long way. I usually first pick up hello and thank you, but then am always disappointed that the most handy phrase I learn by having to use the most is ‘don’t want’ or ‘not interested’ for the tourist touts or taxi fellas.
    I’ve spent the last 6 years mostly living in Thailand and travelling SE Asia. Over time I have probably accumulated more than 10 reasons/excuses why I shouldn’t learn Thai. My best concept on not learning Thai in particular is that it is true that if you speak very fluent Thai you can rub some Thai peeps up the wrong way. It sorta get’s there back’s up. I’d love to know your angle on this because I’m sure you were in Thailand a while back.
    Truth is with me I am lazy to learn languages (I more pick up bit’s and pieces), and I have always said that alot of language learning is directly related to the effort you put in. although adding a few of your language hacking tricks certainly would speed things up.
    I actually met a girl who in 3 weeks was speaking almost fluent Thai. She did it by spending every hour of her days chatting and learning from locals. She’d start the day by going for breakfast somewhere and taking a little notebook and chatting to the staff and it would go on from there. Not my thing but I respect the mission.

    Cracking article.

    Cheers

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I was also disappointed in Thailand (and India) that 2don’t want” is what I needed to say first, but I haven’t had that experience elsewhere. Perhaps because my complexion makes me impossible to blend in so easy there. But the real reason is because I was a big tourist on both occasions and stayed close to touristed areas. You don’t get that treatment if you go elsewhere.
      Here’s my angle on your “if you speak Thai you can rub Thai peeps up the wrong way”: that’s probably the worst and most laziest excuse I’ve ever heard!!! I’ll add it to the stack of BS.
      My Thai wasn’t great at all, but in learning the little I did Thais were appreciative and I can’t imagine them getting angry because I was proving myself to be different to the other farangs. That’s in your head, but I’m sure you have anecdotal evidence of it happening to someone somewhere once and that idea will reinforce the lack of interest to learn.
      I hope you abandon that ridiculous belief and really try to learn the language! I only put about 10-15 hours total into Thai and it was not posing me a major challenge (my “excuse” for not doing more was working 65 hours a week. It wasn’t the lack of time, it was the constant stressed-out feeling in my little free time). If you aren’t so unfortunate, please don’t invent excuses!
      That girl shows you it can be done ;)

  • http://www.MyBeautifulAdventures.com/ GlobalButterfly

    What an insane view!!! I want that closet! :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yeah, it’s wasted on a guy like me. I just throw my 6 t-shirts on a surface & my undies in a drawer and that’s all I use it for :P

  • http://twitter.com/daniel_hers Daniel Hershcovich

    Hi Benny :)

    I’ve been reading your blog for a long while now, and I really love hearing about your travel and seeing you speak with locals and show off your apartments and environment when you’re traveling.

    I also think your language learning and travel philosophy is very interesting and I sure am going to try many of the tips and wonderful ideas that you share.

    However, lately I’ve been feeling you’re starting to repeat what you said in some older posts, and partially in the Language Hacking Guide (which I bought because I really appreciate your ideas).

    I don’t know if other people share my feelings, but I find it much more motivating and fascinating when you share your experiences with the locals in each country and tell about how it is to live in those places. I feel I’ve already internalized your basic ideas, and I’d love to see examples of how you use them, or just stories you’ve been collecting.

    For example, in this post, the story of listening to WWII stories in Czech from an old lady, or dining with an Italian family really got me curious and made me feel like doing these things myself, which I think is the most essential motivation.

    Maybe the reason you’re not telling more private stories is that you’d like to keep them private, in which case I totally respect that. But I thought it would be good if I shared my opinion here, and I hope you consider it in future posts.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Hi Daniel, glad you are getting use out of my ideas!
      Note that I have never written about this topic before so most of this post was brand new. I include my usual ideas and frank statements to people that do appear in other posts, but the only way I can absolutely 100% avoid repetition is if I avoid putting my personality into a post.
      But I will definitely be repeating various ideas over and over again. It’s important to note that the vast majority of people reading this blog have just arrived here and will only read recent posts so they can’t know what I’ve said before.
      However, I’ll be writing about my actual experiences in a country too when the time is right. I’m learning salsa at the moment and would like to share that with people, but better when I have gone through the full course. I’ll also make more videos of course.
      Otherwise as you rightly said there are things I’ll just keep private. This blog is about language learning and travel, so other aspects of my day-to-day life just don’t need to go up here and I’d rather the majority of the blog be about encouraging people to speak languages as in this post.
      But you’ll see lots of other topics including more anecdotes coming up some time later! Thanks a lot for the comment ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I’m afraid that comes from a general issue of how foreigners or people with different skin colour might be treated. But I am confident that speaking English would only make things worse in those situations. I try to blend in as best as I can. In South America you can perhaps pass off as an Argentine if you are white, or a Brazilian if you know Portuguese, but even they might get higher prices depending on who you talk to.

    The Cuban lady didn’t charge you more “because she could explain why”. Sorry but I find that ridiculous. People will always find ways to weasel money out of who they see as tourists. A taxi driver tried to get more money out of me by claiming he didn’t have any change, so instead of just accepting his explanation I told him that his lack of preparation means he has to waste a few minutes while I dig out the right amount in coins. He miraculously found what was missing then.

    Never accept what they say first – this is a smart travel issue, not a language one.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    People travel for different purposes. I don’t travel for food. I eat out with my friends all the time – the company is what matters to me, not what I throw down my neck.

    Other people have no interest in making local friends and that’s fine. I feel they are missing out, and I’m sure they feel I’m missing out by focusing my energy on making friends rather than trying local foods. You’d place food at number 2, but I could list dozens of other reasons to travel that happen to be higher in my priorities. Please don’t snub my way of travel just because it isn’t congruent with yours. For example, this post isn’t telling others they are wrong, it’s just suggesting benefits to English free travel.

    Rather than vague arguments that mean nothing like “you are what you eat”, there are way better ways to argue food’s involvement in culture and skipping them and simply saying what I do is crazy makes your argument especially thin.

    I always try local food if it’s vegetarian of course, but I kind of have to be flexible in what I eat anyway as a vegetarian and adapt in each country.

  • Anth1892

    Hey Benny where did you live in Spain? I’m spreading my wings to go full immersion next year thanks to your site. Frugal cities are welcome to my ears! Thanks.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      One of the best years of my life was in Valencia. It has the charm of many big cities, but being the 3rd city it is still manageable. I found it quite inexpensive, but I lived there 7 years ago so I don’t know how it has changed.
      I can also recommend Salamanca and La Laguna in Tenerife, both of which I lived in for a few months and have lots to do but being manageably small with lovely locals. I also lived in Barcelona and love it to bits, but it’s more expensive and harder to avoid other foreigners, and so not as ideal for a first immersion attempt.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I’m glad your using the Chinese American thing to your advantage, I would too in your place ;)

    But keep in mind that it only “seems” like the whole world wants to practice speaking English if that’s the social circle you are with. You can’t change whole groups of people, but you can make new friends and opt to spend more time with them. I lived in Barcelona for a summer and never spoke English outside of Couchsurfing meetings.

    The Brits are actually a bit worse than Americans from my experience when it comes to not putting up with imperfect English. They’re nice overall, as are Americans, but they expect way too much of people’s English abilities when the foreigner comes to their country. Obviously Americans & Brits travelling will “put up” with bad English to get what they need.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I’m glad your using the Chinese American thing to your advantage, I would too in your place ;)

    But keep in mind that it only “seems” like the whole world wants to practice speaking English if that’s the social circle you are with. You can’t change whole groups of people, but you can make new friends and opt to spend more time with them. I lived in Barcelona for a summer and never spoke English outside of Couchsurfing meetings.

    The Brits are actually a bit worse than Americans from my experience when it comes to not putting up with imperfect English. They’re nice overall, as are Americans, but they expect way too much of people’s English abilities when the foreigner comes to their country. Obviously Americans & Brits travelling will “put up” with bad English to get what they need.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Your story is not unique – I’ve seen it so many times from others, as well as my own experience. Interesting that you genuinely went to several stalls to see how it worked – that’s hilarious :D

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Based on my experience in speaking with as many locals as possible every time, 7.4% even sounds a little too generous. I don’t know where Gary’s statistics come from, but I imagine it is the amount of people who “studied” English, but can not get by in it. After my high school German, I put “very good” on my CV because I had “studied it for five years”, but I literally couldn’t even order a train ticket! I am absolutely sure that if you make a survey asking common people what languages they speak, you would have too many overconfident exaggerators as I was.

    Unfortunately, passing through a country quickly means you are mostly exposing yourself to those working in the tourist industry, who represent the actual population and their English skills very badly, so you’ll see the world through rose-tinted glasses.

    Even in Europe 7.4% is generous. In Spain and Italy I’d argue that it’s less than this (of course if you just survey 20-30 year olds that will skew the data, especially if you survey online or in universities or some other means that gives you access to the richer part of society), and it would only be marginally higher for France.

    • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

      Actually, the number is much higher. About 500m people speak English as a first language, which would give you the 7% number. Most English speakers, however, speak it as a second language. That (depending on the degree of fluency) is estimated to be between 25-30% of the global population. The Economist estimates that by 2050, half the world will have some degree of fluency in English.

      http://www.economist.com/node/883997?Story_ID=883997
      http://www.ehistling-pub.meotod.de/01_lec06.php
      http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=eng
      http://www.oxfordseminars.com/graduate-career-assistance/esl-teaching-jobs.php
      http://sprachshop.com/sixcms/media…/English_as_a_grobal_lang_sample_ch.pdf
      http://www.cepr.org/press/DP2055PR.htm

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

        Gary 20-30% of the global population is absolutely ridiculous!! You just made that figure up. The Economist can “estimate” all it likes, I’m interested in the situation today. Even if the entire world just speaks English in 50 years, that’s just another excuse for English-speakers to be lazy today.

        My answer to some bogus statistics in the first of those links:

        Economist: “over 85% of all international organisations use English as one of their official languages.” Yes – BETWEEN one another! So Sony in Germany will talk to Sony in Italy in English once a week, but do most of their business in Germany in German. Anything else would be a horrible business decision.

        eHistling – I didn’t see any percentages.

        Ethnologue – that gives conveniently round numbers with no reference as to where they got their figures from. Without referencing a real study for most of the countries (like China – no reference to where in the Bibliography they pulled that number out of) I can’t take that seriously. Most of all of these are actually countries or ex-colonies where English is/was an official language, so that skews real data.

        Actually I looked through all those links and found NOTHING referencing the 25-30% that you seem to have pulled out of the air. This sounds like nothing more than a guess, and is ludicrous! Not even France, Italy or Spain (in Europe) would have a 1 in 4 (let alone 3) of confident English speakers. Step outside of the tourist strip and this will be blatantly obvious. This information (if it truly exists) sounds like it was gotten from an Internet or University survey, selecting an elite 20-30 year old part of the population perhaps to skew the data. Or maybe just asking them “do you speak English” with no real gauge on how well if at all.

        Perhaps this is numbers of people who “study” English. In which case that counts for nothing in my opinion. I studied German for five years and put “very good” on my resume after high school, but couldn’t even order a train ticket in German. Many people who study a language can’t communicate in it.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

        I find this entire discussion as going way off topic. Perhaps 25-30% of the planet can count to ten in English and an exaggerated study counts that as “some level of fluency”.

        This means nothing. You can talk deeply to the 1% that speaks fantastic English when travelling as a tourist. But with everyone else you can at best find out how much something costs and that’s not the kind of superficial interactions I like to encourage travellers to look for. Your data doesn’t take skill level into account. It’s all so vague.

        I’m not replying to any more comments with statistics about “some level” of English. That really means nothing. Perhaps that discussion is good for some other day, but here I’m talking about the benefits of English-free travel and so far nothing you have written touches on that or detracts from that.

        Speaking English will give you higher prices and restrict you to conversing with locals who have studied English specifically so they can work better with tourists. You can’t ever get to know anyone else outside of the upper class. If you think you can have a deep conversation with 25-30% of the planet then we are talking about different planets. If you think you can buy a bottle of water from 25% of some particular country then I agree wholeheartedly. But that still gives you nothing more than superficial basic interactions with locals.

        As I said, I’m not interested in talking about the world’s ability to sell you something in basic English. Any statistics you can provide that strengthen the quantity of people that can do this, is irrelevant to what I am actually talking about. I agree with you on that – you can “get by” in English pretty much everywhere.

        I want more than just to get by when I interact with locals, or to just limit myself to a tiny percentage with fantastic English that yes is much less than 25%.

    • http://everything-everywhere.com Gary Arndt

      Actually, the number is much higher. About 500m people speak English as a first language, which would give you the 7% number. Most English speakers, however, speak it as a second language. That (depending on the degree of fluency) is estimated to be between 25-30% of the global population. The Economist estimates that by 2050, half the world will have some degree of fluency in English.

      http://www.economist.com/node/883997?Story_ID=883997
      http://www.ehistling-pub.meotod.de/01_lec06.php
      http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=eng
      http://www.oxfordseminars.com/graduate-career-assistance/esl-teaching-jobs.php
      http://sprachshop.com/sixcms/media…/English_as_a_grobal_lang_sample_ch.pdf
      http://www.cepr.org/press/DP2055PR.htm

  • Anonymous

    Benny! I had to smile when I read this because I just wrote a very similar post about reasons to avoid backpackers. We definitely have some overlapping thoughts on the matter :)

    Cuidate parcero, que chimba este articulo! jajajajaja

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Yes, just read that. Here’s a copy of my comment there:

      I wholeheartedly agree with these reasons, although I prefer to phrase it in the positive since it can lead to arguments with people. This is why I keep drilling people to spend as much or all of their time with locals. When that is your focus you naturally don’t hang out with other backpackers. But I don’t “avoid” other travellers as a rule. If I did, I never would have met you :)

      • Anonymous

        “…it can lead to arguments with people”

        Benny, you were totally right… I got slammed on reddit, which I think is slightly hilarious and a bit exciting as it’s my first controversial post :) That’s why I’ve come back to your site to read your controversial posts and see how you handled it. Gotta consult the experts sometimes :)

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          Stand your ground if you believe in it! ;)

  • http://londoniscool.com William K Wallace

    I personally haven’t got an excuse for not learning another language, I just can’t be bothered. It is, as plain and simple as that. I however make sure I learn a few words such as hello, thank you and fuck you, for manners sake.

    I always try my best to immerse myself into locals cultures by drinking as much local booze and eating all the local foods, as well as sampling the local woman…well I did when I was single…

    Each to their own is what I say…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I totally respect someone who honestly tells me they couldn’t be bothered. What pisses me off is those who couldn’t be bothered and invent BS excuses, lying to both me and themselves.

      Glad you are otherwise immersing yourself ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    If you’re a “prospective purchaser” of my guide, then you’ll have to prepare yourself for my frankness and way of telling it how it is ;)

    Totally agree about what you said about accent over vocabulary. When I speak other languages my accent always impresses them way before someone else who knows a crap tonne of vocabulary would. My vocabulary is actually not *that* impressive in many languages but they treat me as good as a local in many cases because I use some local turns of phrase and try to have their twang.

    My theory on what natives expect is a little different – both the Brits and the French (especially Parisians) have such a high opinion of their own language’ s standing that they find it frustrating to hear it “butchered”. Other counties are more humble and thus more patient. Whether it’s the lingua franca or not makes little difference when you are in England itself. Because the Irish don’t have the same proud attachment to the language I’ve been told by countless foreigners that they felt better treated in Ireland than England. This says nothing about how nice Brits vs Irish actually are, and I’m not talking about xenophobia, just towards someone making lots of mistakes in English. What do you think?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    If you’re a “prospective purchaser” of my guide, then you’ll have to prepare yourself for my frankness and way of telling it how it is ;)

    Totally agree about what you said about accent over vocabulary. When I speak other languages my accent always impresses them way before someone else who knows a crap tonne of vocabulary would. My vocabulary is actually not *that* impressive in many languages but they treat me as good as a local in many cases because I use some local turns of phrase and try to have their twang.

    My theory on what natives expect is a little different – both the Brits and the French (especially Parisians) have such a high opinion of their own language’ s standing that they find it frustrating to hear it “butchered”. Other counties are more humble and thus more patient. Whether it’s the lingua franca or not makes little difference when you are in England itself. Because the Irish don’t have the same proud attachment to the language I’ve been told by countless foreigners that they felt better treated in Ireland than England. This says nothing about how nice Brits vs Irish actually are, and I’m not talking about xenophobia, just towards someone making lots of mistakes in English. What do you think?

  • http://philintheblank.net Phil Paoletta

    I think the bottom line is that learning the local language will enrich your experience enormously. And as you said Benny, even if you have only a few days somewhere, you can learn how to greet. I learned basic greetings in bambara the first day I was here and just saying hello, how are you in that language has led to so many experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. The other day I said good afternoon to Bambara to a man drinking tea on the roadside. He invited me into his house and I had a two hour lunch with his family. Talking mostly in French, but learning more bambara, and most importantly, learning about Malian culture and making new friends in the process. This is also not to mention that english is completely worthless here. B well, Phil

  • Annette

    What an amazing post! I know exactly what you mean by the “English tax”. I think you could also call it the “tourist tax”. It was quite evident when I was in Costa Rica, recently. We were in some kind of a tourist store and bought some bottles of the local sauce to take home. Later that day, we were in a normal grocery store and the very same sauce was waaaaay cheaper. I’m sure there are many, many more examples of this sort of thing.

    And I really like what you say about English dominance in the world being an illusion. I truly believe you are right and until I can really go and live in a place using only the language and doing things the locals do (as opposed to things tourists do), I don’t really think I will have experienced the culture. You said one of the things you’ve done is “shouted conversations across a dinner table with a huge southern Italian family”. Now that is something I want to do!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks for sharing! I’ll make sure to write in more detail about such Italian dinner experiences :)

  • http://www.thetraveltart.com The Travel Tart

    Just knowing 5 words in another language takes you a long way – hello, goodbye, please, thank you and beer and combinations of those! Locals love it when you try to make an effort, even if you butcher their language. They don’t care if you sound like their version of Borat. This has led me to have some great experiences using nothing more than sign language and maybe a English/insert other language here dictionary!