Ironic post: Why English is all you need to travel the world

Over the last month, I’ve changed my ways of trying to communicate in the local language, and I’ve been living the life of a typical English-speaking tourist.

This is the first time in a long time that I’ve tried this, as I almost always work on linguistic immersion as a means of getting to know a culture. The results of this experiment have been eye-opening for me, especially since I can compare it to the alternative through years of experience.

So, enough talk of learning other languages. How can that possibly enrich your life if you are already a native speaker of the [ironic mode on] best language ever?

In today’s post, I’m going to give some arguments shared by my fellow English speakers, on why learning another language really is just a waste of your time. You can travel the world just with English, and here’s why:

  • In many places, you will have no problem ordering food and checking into your hotel entirely through English. This is, after all, pretty much the only reason you ever need to talk to other human beings: to get French fries and an air-conditioned bedroom. Actually getting to know the locals is a waste of your precious travel time
  • If you’re an English speaker, you don’t have any work at all to do in learning the international language! You automatically have the advantage over everyone else, as it should be. All English speakers agree that this is perfectly fair, so it is!
  • The most important things to do in other countries are: taking pictures of the sites, going on package tours and eating food in restaurants with translated menus. Making a local friend, eating with their family and going out with them to somewhere not recommended in your tourist brochure / Lonely Planet guide can only lead to trouble; all foreigners want to kill you remember.
  • You will find lots of other tourists to hang out with wherever you go. It’s way more logical to travel thousands of kilometres to hang out with people from just down the road; you share so much in common! Foreign countries are so weird; it’s best to avoid any kind of immersion and stick to what you know!
  • Learning another language is hard and takes decades of study. On top of this, research has shown that after a certain age it is impossible. An adult could never learn a language quickly.
  • You simply don’t have the time to learn even some basic phrases and polite pleasantries; on the flight over for example you have some important reading of quality airline magazines to do, as well as staring out the window and squirming uncomfortably
  • English is the best language in the world and perfectly suited to being the international language. Anyone could find the inconsistent spelling rules, unnecessary formalities, huge amount of synonyms, irregularities and vast differences between dialects super easy to master. It’s not like there’s any good competition for international language or anything.
  • English will always be the international language. I know we said this for Latin… then French… but we mean it this time!
  • England and the US have no bad history with any other country on the planet, so everyone loves to hear English. You are doing the locals a favour by spreading the world’s best language!
  • Foreigners use of English can never be confusing
  • If they occasionally make it hard to understand, it’s their fault. You went to all that trouble to buy a plane ticket to their country, so they should have the common decency of speaking a language from the other side of the planet.
  • Actually forget what I said about common decency, since that rule doesn’t apply to you; you speak the special chosen language!! It’s great to be the exception to the rule, isn’t it?!
  • If the person doesn’t speak English, they aren’t worth speaking to. They probably all have simple lives, spending their days in tree huts. University educated locals that work in the tourist industry are your key to an authentic experience!

[Ironic mode off]

OK, seriously – the last month has been among the least interesting of all my travels. Thailand’s islands are pretty, but this style of travel is not for me. There are so many things missing, and this post shows that I really don’t understand other travellers’ attitude when it comes to learning at least a little of the local language.

It seems that most of them either think that learning the local language is unnecessary (which I disagree with, and will go into detail about another time), or is too hard or too time consuming; which I’m hoping this blog can help to disprove.

I suppose it comes down to different styles of travel. Some people take breathtaking photos of their destinations, and measure their travels in kilometres covered, number of countries visited, new foods tasted and perhaps even names of unknown villages they discovered. My criteria are much more simple: the experiences I have with those I meet. Sorry guys, but talking with Australians, Brits, Americans, Canadians, South Africans and other Irish that happen to be on the same path.. is not enough for me.

This post is mostly venting my own frustration in a disappointing last month, rather than trying too hard to criticise other modes of travel. I’m back to the style of travel I like, and that’s all that really matters.

I’ll follow this post up soon with a more positive look on how speaking the local language can hugely enrich your travels. My bouncing around is over, and I’m back in Bangkok now (just for 3 more weeks), attempting to speak the little Thai I know every chance I get, and to improve on it every day. The experience is much greater and I feel like I’ll be leaving Thailand with something extra than if I had left after just following the typical path covered by millions before me.

Learning some of the local language isn’t that hard, and I hope I can convince some people of that on this blog. Let’s stop being typical English-speaking tourists :)



I'll send you the first lesson right away.
Click here to see the comments!
  • David Yip

    Shouldn't it be [Sarcastic mode on]? HAHA! Anyway I think you're spot on about your method of visiting places, travelling should be about total immersion in a different environment and culture than your own, I mean what is the point in going to Paris (or anywhere for that matter) and eating in McDonalds and chatting with fluent English speakers?

  • Steve

    I agree with everything you said and have had similar conversations with friends who can't be bothered to learn the languages of the countries they visit.
    The only problem with the post is that it would be best served elsewhere as I expect most of your subscribers are similarly minded to you. You should try to get it into a travel magazine or something. Good post and nice to see that argument written down. Will be looking forward to the post about the advantages of studying languages.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but as the blog gets more popular, non-language learners will see it. I don't think this post is going to convince anyone, it's mostly just my own way of venting and trying to be funny about it ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Maybe this post is like Alanis Moresette's ironic; it's ironic that it isn't ironic!
    I was aiming for writing a post that “tries” to give the benefits of speaking English, while showing the hidden flaw in its own logic. Maybe the tone seems sarcastic, but I honestly think the situation of English-speaking tourists are filled with irony…
    I'm not so much concerned about where you eat (hell, if I wasn't vegetarian, I'd probably eat in McDo – and I eat pizza hut sometimes when I'm feeling lazy), but who you eat with ;) But going to these places does usually mean you are avoiding the culture you travelled thousands of kilometres to see.
    I think people's logic of travelling just with English is flawed, especially now that I've done it myself. This month in Thailand has been so empty, and I can already feel an improvement now that I am speaking some Thai on a day-to-day basis (even if it's still just the basics)

  • elthyra

    Wait, do Parisians count as 'foreigners who don't want to kill you'? :P
    I think there's no point in traveling if you don't plan on experiencing another culture – I mean, I understand that seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, or other monuments can be amazing, but there isn't much fun in simply walking in crowded streets to try to see as many famous buildings as possible. I can't help but think I would hate visiting Paris as a tourist.

  • soultravelers3

    So true!

    American's (like most English speakers) are horrible at learning languages as miss so much because of it, but I must say I'm surprised that those from the UK/Ireland are just as bad. (They are sooo close to the continent with so many languages).

    But Spaniards (in Spain & South America) aren't any better…because they speak a dominant language.

    Most humans do not learn languages unless they have to.

    Amazes me that people not only travel, but LIVE YEARS in places that they do not speak the language!

  • Linda

    I know I am guility of it. I have lived in several countries over the last 10 years and have not taken the time to learn the local language. I have been in India now 3 years and still havent learned enough hindi to have a full conversation. I totally agree with Benny and I totally use all the excuses, but when Im totally honest with myself. Its just pure laziness. Reading Benny and others experiences has sure pushed me in the right direction, maybe by next time this year I will be speaking enough hindi to watch a full bollywood film with no subtitles. Keep writing Benny!!!!

    • Brook Dave

       Hi Linda,
      After spending almost 2 years in India , I finally go down to learning hindi . I found this app called PicSpeak (available on itunes) very useful !  There’s so much traffic in India , that I end up wasting so much time doing nothing. So i finally found this app and put it on my iphone and then i could learn hindi anytime and anywhere . There are several apps available in the market that help you learn hindi . Why PicSpeak stoof out for me was that number 1 : it Did not require use of the internet , and since data coverage in india isn’t very good when ur on the road , its not easy to use an app thats always trying to get the translation online. But since this wasn’t the case with picSpeak  it was really good.
      The second reason is that picSpeak allows search on transliteration , so if some one next to me said “Namaste” and i didnt quite know what that meant , i could just type in “namaste” and it would give me the translation to english :) Hope this helps you as well :)

  • Troy

    I feel similarly: I've traveled a fair bit and try to pick up the local language when I do. Experiencing a new culture is one of the best parts of travel (apart from local food!). And having learned Portuguese as an adult, I can relate to the joys and frustrations of language learning.

    That said, there are some points on which I disagree:

    1. It's ok not to be a social person. People travel for many reasons: nature, architecture, history, food… I have a friend who actively avoids social contact, yet loves history, nature, and architecture and travels for the love of these things. Nothing wrong with that.

    2. Some English speakers feel guilty that they only speak one language. That's just silly. Most people learn a foreign language because it yields a tangible benefit. I learned Portuguese because I love Brazilians. Others learn English because it provides them with a better livelihood.

    The world is assymetric. There is less incentive for English speakers to study foreign languages than vice-versa. It is clearly easier for people to learn at most 2 languages (their own and a common language) than for everyone to learn all languages. For some people those two languages happen to coincide. Currently, English is the common language in many areas such as science and business.

    3. Learning a language is not trivial. As you pointed out in your last post, it shares many characteristics with learning an instrument. And while learning a few chords may takes a couple of days of practice, mastery can take decades. Some people enjoy the process, others not so much.

    On the other hand I agree with many of your points:

    * English is a horribly inconsistent language. Does it seem to you, however, that most languages have some painful feature? English: lexicon size, Portuguese: conjugation, Chinese: tones. Oh, maybe Hawaiian is all good?

    * Less “attitude” when foreigners dont' speak English would be a good start.

  • Annette

    I really loved this post :) I know I hate being told by people that I “don't have to learn the language” of where I want to go because everyone speaks English, anyway! First of all, it's not even necessarily true and secondly, it's really unfair to expect everyone in the world to learn English just because it's the language of power (though I am happy to help people learn if they want to). Anyway, my passion is driving me to learn other languages and experience other cultures in an authentic way! I enjoyed Italy this summer but Germany, in a lot of ways, was richer for me because I could speak and understand the language. In the future, I plan to go back to Italy for the same kind of experience.

    Thanks for the '' link, by the way. That's hilarious!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Nah, Parisians do actually want to kill you. There is a funny scene in the “year in the merde” book where he talks about trying to cross the road in Paris :P
    I hated Paris as a non-tourist (lived there for 9 months), so unfortunately you can't always win! I'll be back in Paris just after Bangkok, so I'll give it a second chance and stay for a few days and see if I can leave with a positive view of the place!
    In most cases, just looking at monuments gets old VERY quickly. Living life with locals lets you see another side to the city :) That is months or years worth of enjoyment that tourists can't get so well.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    We aren't that bad in Ireland since we have to learn a language in school (Irish) from a very early age. It's taught to us inefficiently, but at least the exposure gives some of us a better edge when we start learning other languages. Bilingual signs and TV channels seep into the culture and at least show us that a non-100% English world is possible.
    Also, (I think this is the same in the UK) – you cannot enter university unless you have passed your exams at a high level of a foreign language. Those exams are pure academic work and have little influence on your actual comprehension and speaking-level, but at least that's something. I'm sure this requirement is influenced by presence in Europe.
    Nevertheless, there is something common among most English-speakers that you can see in my frustration in this post. I'm also amazed to meet people living years in a place with barely any of the local language…
    You're right that it's not just English speakers, Spaniards in Spain are almost as bad as us, however those that travel definitely have a good command of essential English if they are on more than a weekend vacation.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the encouragement! :)
    I lived in India this time last year and unfortunately learning Hindi wouldn't have been enough – India is rich with many languages. Hindi is important in Bollywood and for reading signs etc., but in the south (or Goa where I was), there are other different languages that are actually used by locals on a day-to-day basis, even though they would all understand Hindi. English in India is kind-of grey since it's an official language of the country, and used by a lot of Indians even among families.
    However, if I was living in New Delhi I'd definitely learn Hindi as that would help me expand my social circle and enjoy the city much more! Is this where you are?
    Good luck with your Hindi goals!!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for sharing! I expect some disagreement as this is a sensitive topic!
    Although I wouldn't use the word “trivial”, I still think that learning another language is way easier than most people think. I wouldn't say I master any language, and yet I can live a full life through them. I say on this blog a lot that perfectionism is far from my goals. If I have an accent and make a few mistakes (but still speak fluently and don't slow down conversations), that is an ok point to be (although I'm always trying to improve).
    To answer your questions; most languages have “painful points” and this post would be equally relevant to any biased decision to make any particular language “the” international language. However, I linked to Esperanto as I think that satisfies a lot of the points I made here (it's not biased to one country, it's designed to be easy to learn for a large number of people etc.)
    I also agree with the bad attitude people have with people speaking bad English in their own country. It's ludicrous. Only complain about the waitress not understanding your order in English if she takes it in London etc.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    You're welcome! Thanks for echoing my views on English's use in travels.
    Italy was a special place for me thanks to my Italian. My travels there would have been vastly different if I had only used English. I saw a side to the country that I feel a lot of travellers miss out on. Good luck with your Italian!! is a great site :D

  • soultravelers3

    That's true about the Irish exposure and UK/IRL language education, but most middle class, University going US American's also have academic training in at least 1 language.

    Soooo true that that has “Little influence on your actual comprehension and speaking-level”. I've known some who have had A's in language in both high school and University that can not speak that language!

    “Nevertheless, there is something common among most English-speakers that you can see in my frustration in this post.”

    Exactly and I agree. We spend most of our travels in more rural, non-English, so see this regularly AND how much better the Scandinavians & those from the Netherlands tend to be in comparison!

    The Spaniards do learn English in school too, but alas it does them no better than their English speaking counter parts. Most in Spain and South America do not speak a 2nd language.

    Even in most of continental Europe, outside of cities and tourist hotels and related business, few are fluent in a 2nd language. Like the USA & UK, they just do not make it a priority like they do in Scandinavia and Netherlands.

    This year, I spent much time in a hospital in Melk, Austria and was amazed that my surgeon (who had worked in Vienna) & almost 100& of the doctors, nurses & staff, spoke 0% or very, very little English!!

    They all took it in school, but almost none could have even the most simple, child-like conversation.

    Continental Europe is still probably the best place on the planet to see the value of having several languages, but alas, even here, things are not that different.

    It's not just English speakers, but perhaps a human quality that makes most forgo truly learning another language unless they have to, have a natural inclination thus learn easily or are extremely motivated.

    Those that get deeply immersed in other languages in childhood have the greatest advantage as it's easiest then when the brain is geared toward language acquisition and each language mastered, makes the next one easier.

    I think all schools, starting with preschools, should be duo immersion (ie Spanish/English in USA and French/English in Canada ) so at least they would start out being fluently bilingual in 2 major languages & knowing a language well teaches a culture.

  • Steve

    Although Scandinavians and Dutch people are very good at English, it doesn't make them any better travellers because they then use English everywhere they go, regardless of the native language of that country, just like us English natives. Same for most nationalities, we're all as bad as each other and as lazy as each other, the only difference is that they know that their language is useless abroad.

  • soultravelers3

    That may be true in Asia, but I have actually seen MANY Scandinavian and Dutch multi-language speakers (not uncommon for them to know 4 languages well or more as many learn 2 VERY fluently in school besides their mother tongue and once one is fluent in 3 languages it is much easier to learn more) switch between them all in different countries or native speakers of each language.

    This is actually quite a common experience in continental Europe & I have even seen young children do this. They don't speak English in Spain or Germany or France etc if they are fluent in those languages as well. That IS different than the vast majority of native English speakers traveling or living as expats.

    Every week I go to my Dr (From Holland) & watch her & My Physical Therapist (from Denmark) speak perfect Dutch, German, English, Spanish and Danish to the appropriate patient. This is a VERY common sight in Europe, but very rare in the US. They can read, write & do extensive reading and writing in each language as well, including complex medical literature.

    It IS true that smaller nations surrounded by other countries with more dominate languages have much more motivation to learn languages, but some are better than others if the school system & culture values & supports language learning.

    No one can (or probably should) learn every language, but even having a 2nd dominant language when traveling makes a HUGE difference & advantage as a traveler. We see that with our Spanish constantly as it helps us with Portuguese, Italian & some French plus with people in many countries that speak Spanish as a 2nd language better than English.

    On a whole we have seen the Dutch & Scandinavians have great advantages in traveling as they DO speak the language well of other countries besides English, thus that gives them an advantage over almost all native English speakers (who almost never have even a 2nd language).

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for continuing the discussion!
    I wholeheartedly agree – Scandanavians in Asia are almost as bad as English speakers – a little worse because they may stick together as they travel and that group is harder to penetrate because of the language barrier, even if they will happily individually speak to you in English.
    But in Europe the rules change – it's out of necessity and proximity, as well as a much better approach in the educational system and cultural values, as you said.
    When I'm in Europe and people see that I'm a polyglot, it really is not that big a deal, since a polyglot is a dime a dozen there; I see situations like your doctor all the time – although I do get congratulated a lot for being a native-English polyglot… For whatever reason, a Dutch or Scandinavian etc. polyglot doesn't deserve as much of a pat on the back as an English speaker.
    It's unfair of course, but there is this pressure and expectation for Northern Europeans to be good at languages – so the culture adjusts to that. Extremely low expectations towards and from English speakers reinforces the self-fulfilling prophecy, so they'll continue to uphold the stereotype…

  • Jennifer Wagner

    This made me laugh and yet cry at the same time, because there are so many monolingual English speakers who actually believe this. I love being surrounded by languages and learning as many as I possibly can, and I really don't understand people who don't want to or hate the thought of learning languages. I just don't get it. Why would you not want to learn about other cultures and talk to people from all over the planet? I can see how Anglophones get lazy about studying languages since English seems to be everywhere, but it really isn't. I get sick of hearing “everyone in Europe speaks English” because it just isn't true – unfortunately even for my students who have been studying it for 8 years…

  • Davis Miller

    Point Break – A Perfect Bar Experience in NYC

    A local friend recommended and took my Cali group to this amazing bar. He said that mostly locals came here so I didn't really know what to expect ambiance wise… but screw it, the view at this bar was absolutely breathtaking! No joke. I felt like a celebrity w/ superstar treatment as the staff are friendly and amazing to say the very least.

    I don't know who the house DJ was but he definitely was playing music right up my alley. It would've been my dream for people to start dancing, but it's all good.

    It's a bit sceney for my taste, but it really didn't bother me much. the bartenders knew their stuff, although their 1st cocktail was a little weak, when he saw i understood cocktails the next 2 were stronger. I also liked that even though the place was really hopping the bartender remembered what i was drinking when i came to order another. (he also understood how good a gin hendricks is, and not to overpower it with the mixer). It was amazing to see their “das boot” which is shaped like a boot filled with beer. Don’t get me wrong, I am not drunk…it’s an actual boot shaped beer container ready to be emptied..try it will love it!! can I forget, they even have a wheel o' shots where you just have to spin it and have to drink whatever shot it lands on!! Now call that bar creativity at its best!!!

    We ordered the Veal and Fish Tacos. They were delicious. Mm! We ended up asking for spoons to polish off whatever remained in the platter. (Faux pas? Who cares as long as it gets in my tummy.) The fries were crispy, but not overcooked, just the way that I like them.

    So take in this scene: You walk in to what seems like an overly crowded place, but soon fine an empty table. Time seems to stop and the only indicator of the night moving on is the moon and your brain cells slowly going to bed forever. The music is not to loud and the people around look good, the only thing left for you to do is to enjoy that drink you paid ridiculously low for and laugh at the joke your co-worker just told.

    The vibe of the place just never seems to die out and if you happen to spot some NYC socialite, sports player, or star, don't let it get to you… because for that moment, this night they are no long more important than then you. In fact go up to them and introduce yourself!

    All in all just a great place to meet new people, or just have drinks with people you already know. I've been to numerous bars in the city but i would say this place is just great. Very welcoming staff, very laid back ambiance. I’ve been here twice after my first visit with my Cali group . I would say its worth the every penny you spend!!

  • Eduardo Marques

    Do I have to say that knowing english means almost NOTHING in Brazil? Seriously, a very few people, even sellers, speak English, and they are always trying to fool from silly gringos.

    • Andrew Riegle

      in English we say “vendors” “hawkers” or “peddlers”

      • Tony Mechelynck

         or sales-, er, -people. (“Salesmen” is bordering on political incorrectness nowadays, isn’t it?)

      • LittleBabyBug Jones

        i know this was posted 2 yrs ago but wanted to add that “seller” has become accepted in reference to online salesmen. “Wanna become a Seller for/on Amazaon?!??” it’s not used IRL cases where you’d name people who sell, but it’s specific to internet usage

  • Eduardo Marques

    Sellers, I mean, not all brazilians. :)

  • Andrew

    Well, I agree with you on most points, but I do have to say that I think English IS going to continue being the international language, the “lingua franca”, for a very long time to come. There's a reason that, for non-English-speakers, English is by far the most popular second language in the world, it's what everyone who doesn't speak it wants to learn, and knowing it gives you a huge advantage in travel, business, etc.

    Mind you, I'm teaching myself Spanish and Japanese and eventually hope to be fluent in at least a half dozen languages or so, plus I plan on traveling and living all over the world, so I am absolutely in favor of people learning lots of different languages.

    However, if you had to pick the most useful language for the traveler (presuming they don't have a specific area of the world in mind that they want to travel to) it would unquestionably be English. It's easily the most universally “useful” language in existence today.


    • Tony Mechelynck

       History is accelerating: I’ll bet you better than even money that English gets replaced by something else (but I don’t know what) as the world’s lingua franca in your own lifetime.

      Before WWII it was French, and before that Italian, and Latin until the Renaissance, and Greek in the Roman Empire, and Aramaean in the Fertile Crescent from before the Babylon deportation to some time AD, maybe as late as Muhammad’s time, …

      I might even argue that there are several other languages in existence today which are just as “universally useful” as English (or maybe more, depending on choice of criteria). But you wouldn’t believe me (or you would have found them yourself) so it would be a waste of argument.

  • Fotini Boyiatzi

    I very much liked this post. It hits the spot. I’ve so far travelled that way, because I believed that I couldn’t learn the language. (Ok, once I decided to go to a trip a week earlier, so I only had time to learn basic stuff). But indeed, just seeing monuments and museums gets old fast. It’s like many European countries have similarities, and it’s not exciting anymore. But I would continue to eat in McDonald’s, basically because many times the local cuisine is damn expensive!!!! Or else I would definitely eat the local cuisine (assuming that it’s not insects or something of that sort). I hope to achieve your mentality!

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      McDonald’s is the cheapest option ON THE TOURIST STRIP. You’ll pay premium prices when you don’t bother leaving places with a view of some cathedral or landmark or in the main square. Get away from these places to where locals eat and the local cuisine will be very reasonably priced. I’m amazed I actually have to explain this to be honest… you’re the first person in the world to say local cuisine is expensive and I imagine it’s all down to you looking for places with English menus. Please don’t be the guy I wrote about in this article.

      • Tony Mechelynck

         Right. On the tourist strip you see restaurants right next to each other with waiters at the door just trying to lure the tourist (you, or the next Yankee or Jap) in. Even McDonald’s gets pushed a little to the side. But oh! Just walk a hundred metres or two sideways from the tourists’ causeway and you’ll find better food (and more like what the natives actually eat day-to-day) at half the price or less. No kidding!

        • Benny Lewis

          Please stop replying to absolutely everybody!!! When you do this across several of my blog posts, it’s not cool as you take over the entire comments space.

          • Tony Mechelynck

            OK, I will. Sorry I’ve been to enthusiastic about this blog of yours, which I’ve discovered yesterday.

          • Benny Lewis

            No worries. Always feel free to leave comments, just not to the extent that you have ;)

  • Benny Lewis

    You misread what I was saying. I enjoy the company of Australians etc., but too many foreigners socialise almost exclusively with other English speakers and they definitely miss out on a lot.

    I usually take a break from full on immersion every two weeks or so and go to a big expat meetup and hang out with English speakers and enjoy myself, but I find the culture and mindset and conversations to be similar no matter where I am, and prefer to get back to the locals for the majority of my stay. This isn’t devaluing those cultures, it’s choosing to focus on the one that’s actually surrounding me at the time. I have visited America and Canada and will visit Australia some day and love spending time with them as much as I do anyone else. For me there is no “better” culture.

    But when abroad, Americans/Canadians etc. are definitely not enough and more time needs to be devoted to locals. I’m disappointed in YOU for arguing against that. ;)

  • Benny Lewis

    You misread what I was saying. I enjoy the company of Australians etc., but too many foreigners socialise almost exclusively with other English speakers and they definitely miss out on a lot.

    I usually take a break from full on immersion every two weeks or so and go to a big expat meetup and hang out with English speakers and enjoy myself, but I find the culture and mindset and conversations to be similar no matter where I am, and prefer to get back to the locals for the majority of my stay. This isn’t devaluing those cultures, it’s choosing to focus on the one that’s actually surrounding me at the time. I have visited America and Canada and will visit Australia some day and love spending time with them as much as I do anyone else. For me there is no “better” culture.

    But when abroad, Americans/Canadians etc. are definitely not enough and more time needs to be devoted to locals. I’m disappointed in YOU for arguing against that. ;)

  • Anonymous

    If English is now the international language why does the British Government now employ Esperanto translators ?

  • Gabriel Pereira Lobato

    really nice! i’m brazilian and i have worked many times on events in the south of brazil, most of them as a guide, and i really do noticed that persons from countries where english is the official language have this bad behavior on thinking that everybody in brazil should speak with them in english.

    i’ve met many french and spanish people too and they’re completely different, they really do an effort to speak our local language, at least saying ‘hi, how are you? can you help me?’ a few words in the local language that helps local people to feel respected and appreciated!! its not that hard to learn 3…4 words in the local language.

    • Tony Mechelynck

       3 or 4 words, even that many sentences, is a breeze — I’ve stopped counting the languages in which I can say a few things like “Hello, how are you? I don’t understand {language name}” and maybe some numbers (bom día; bõa tarde; bõa noite; bom natal e bom an; não falo portuguès; um, dos, tres, cuatro — and one sentence which used to hang in my grandparents’ entry hall: Bemvindo seja quem vier por bem). Having a “real” conversation is harder, but of course this is a starting point.

  • Tony Mechelynck

    I don’t know if at 61 I’ll still be able to learn an additional language someday (I hope I will), but, oh, this post was fun. Some people might think that it seemed funnier to me because English isn’t my mother language, but you know what? I’ve heard native French-speakers parrot the exact same fallacies about why English is “the only universal language”!

    Nu, mi plu portas verdan stelon je la butontruo, sed jam de longa tempo mi ne plu klopodas enpuŝi Esperanton al neinteresatoj — mi nur mencios ĝin responde al demando, kaj eĉ tiel, la reago plej ofte estos “Ah, jes, ĝi havis ioman sukceson inter la militoj, ĉu ne? Mia avo flue parolis ĝin; sed ĝi estas tute eksmoda, mortinta pasintaĵo, ĉu ne? Kiom da homoj ankoraŭ parolas ĝin?” kaj tiel plu.

    Mais faire la rencontre d’un espérantiste couche-surfeur polyglotte, avec le sens de l’humour, une saine intelligence et une attitude positive envers la vie, quel bonheur! Quelque chose me dit que quand j’aurai posté ce commentaire, je vais souscrire au flux RSS.

  • Miguel

    People give the English language too much credit. English is not needed or spoken everywhere – you cannot get by anywhere in the world in English. Personally, I cannot stand Anglos, because the are so cold, show no emotions, and are phonies. I say go for Spanish and Portuguese, because right there you can communicate with close to 700 million people. Plus, Spanish and Portuguese are so, so close that learning one of them practically gives you the other language at no extra charge, other than just a little bit of practice.

  • disqus_cqEHPnmW3f

    While it is true that English is spoken in many places, so too is Spanish, Portuguese, and French for example. I am actually more than happy to leave my English on the plane when I vacation in exotic countries where English is not the official language, particularly: Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, Cuba, Spain, France, Quebec. So in my humble opinion, English is not the be all, end all.

  • dontgetmewrongimbilingualtoo

    We should have a commonly spoken language throughout the entire world. It only brings positive outcomes, not saying it would be easy but it should be a goal. English is the most realistic seeing as about 90% of everything worth documenting has been documented in English. Moon landing, vaccines, skin-to-stem-cell research just to name a few. Also, English is spoken most diversely throughout the world. That’s how you can order your French Fries and check into your hotel in almost any country you would want to visit. To what Tony said, yeah before it was French, than Italian, then whatever. But nothing worth documenting happened. Well, almost nothing. The argument that since “mandarin chinease is the most spoken language in the world well we should learn it” that is absurd, because if you looked at a language graph spread across the world, you would see bursts of English all around the entire world, Mandarin Chinease is concentrated in that one big dot on the map, it would be easier for everyone else to learn English because you can garuntee that there is a surplus of people (or enough to teach at least) EVERYWHERE that know it. If you’re one of those people that think it dirives from your culture or anything spiritual so you think that we should have this diversity, nobody is saying you have to forget your language, just that you need to be semi-fluent in English in order for a basic outline of common communication between every country.

    • Benny Lewis

      Your comment is either a brilliant follow-up to my ironic satire in the same spirit, and as such really clever… or you are being genuine, then it’s the biggest pile of ignorant bullshit I’ve seen in some time.

  • Ken 1969

    Hi Benny,

    I am English (half Irish on my mother’s side) but have never been remotely proud of it – not to stereotype too much but I find many of my countrymen arrogant, ignorant, with a sense of entitlement that perhaps stems from the dim distant memory of Empire where Britannia ruled the waves. And of course the days of Emprie are the sole reason that so much of the world still speaks English – and indeed also why large swathes of the global population speak Spanish, French and Portuguese due to the expansion of those countries at the peak of their powers.

    Those days are long gone, the age of Empire is dead and all of the European powers are much diminished – we had our peak and are now in the throes of a humbling economic dip while our Latin American and Asian cousins are very much in the ascendant.

    Like you Benny I always felt I missed the “language gene” but still had the confidence that “any idiot” can pick up a few key phrases from a local guide book while on the plane to a new destination. I have travelled all over the world for work as well as pleasure from Indonesia, Singapore and Japan to Nigeria and Mexico – and I always got very positive feedback from locals for at least making the effort, and as a result always worked hard on my accent and pronunciation so at least the few words I could speak didn’t make me sound like a complete moron.

    My wife and I took some French classes so we can “get by” as tourists in French which has meant we’ve had some great holidays in France (Paris and the wine regions both of which we love) but apart from that, at 44 years of age now I find myself embarrassed to admit that I have gradually started to become the stereotype myself! Maybe not through the same feeling of entitlement some of my compatriots might have but just through laziness, I realise that I have tended to pick English speaking holiday resorts.

    Many of my main holidays are activity driven – scuba diving and skiing – and it is just so easy to find English speaking dive operators and ski schools wherever you go so you just don’t have the added challenge of navigating a local language.

    So I guess I fall into another category of English speaker who misses out on immersing themselves in a local culture – the “activity tourist” who could be diving or skiing in any country in the world without even noticing the local language.

    Your story – which I stumbled upon while reading The $100 Startup – is inspiring and humbling. I had always had in the back of my mind the ambition to one day – somehow – crack at least one language. Your story makes me think maybe that is not so hopeless as I may have feared.

    Great blog, some great posts, very thought-provoking, keep it up!


  • hb1736

    I ran across this because as a Spanish teacher I was writing an article about why Americans only speak one language. While I haven’t got my life set up to live as you are right now, in my 20’s I was mostly abroad and agree with you that really the richness of a new place lies in yes, the history and the sites, but mostly, mostly in the people that you get to know there. Those relationships offer interesting insights, fuel conversations and open up the world more than any monument or museum might.

    agree with your irony, I don’t understand “isolationist” travel in a tourbus or sticking to a regimen of mostly familiar types, but that’s just me, and apparently you too. :o)

  • Jesse

    This reminds me when I tell my friends that I’m learning another language, then they reply that they would too but (insert something about how *wonderful* English is and how they’re never going to use another language in their life).

  • Hilary

    THANK YOU for this post! I love it, you perfectly articulated my feelings. I just got back from a 10 day vacation in Paris and couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt slightly dissatisfied with the experience. I think it’s because I took 5 years of French in high school (I’m now 24) but that only was enough really to frustrate me and make me wish I had kept up with it. My travel companion was completely content to talk to only the other native English speakers we met, but I wanted to talk to French people! So I am going to start working on learning French again and hope that I can take a trip back sometime to see the rest of the country. I think I like traveling, but I don’t like being a typical “look at monuments in the crowd” kind of tourist.

  • bunteQ

    Efri buddy Englisch speeks. Englisch is universal sandwich. Not need lern other landwich.

  • Terra Magnum Imperium

    Conversing with beautiful women in the native language.

  • Kerren Faith Paden

    learning thai language is soo hard for me, Like I have to know the tone. If you misuse the tone, it gives them another meaning! whoa! thanks to my students who’s teaching me. seriously, you can learn to the kids rather than to the old ones :D

  • Peter Romero

    I really agree with you that spending time getting to know locals IN THEIR OWN LANGUAGE is more fun than seeing sights. I’m an American who has only traveled outside the U.S. a few times, but it has always been with someone from the country. What I valued the most about those trips wasn’t as much seeing the Mona Lisa or the Sistine (those things were great, of course), but the experiences with people in their day-to-day lives. After the fifth castle/palace, they all start to look the same. What’s better was sitting down to a home-cooked dinner in a cozy little French farmhouse where no one felt the need to speak to me in English. Staying in a little Polish convent with angelic nuns who spoke only Polish and Italian (I had to do my best with Italian). Speaking broken Italian to two street musicians outside the Colosseum who turned out to be from Mexico (which made communication easier). Riding white-knuckled in a pickup truck over bumpy roads through the forests of north Poland with four guys speaking Polish a mile a minute… and realizing after 14 hours that I was picking out certain words they were saying. Looking through a telescope in a chilly field south of Paris with my friend’s dad, learning the French names of the constellations.

    Of course, I’m not really brave enough to pull up stakes and bounce around the world like you, but even here at home I can experience those things. I attend a French meetup group semi-regularly that has several native speakers. I also recently attended a Swedish one that was just starting, even though I’ve only studied Swedish for about three weeks total. I was lost for most of it, but not completely unable to communicate… and the people were super nice. And they were surprised because I’m trying to learn their little unimportant language. “Värför?” one man asked. “Därför att jag älskar det svenska språket.” Because I love the Swedish language, and I’m really drawn to their culture! I don’t need much more reason than that.

  • flexovadatwistyoutwat

    Right! Most people in the world don’t speak English, and that would be a civilisation progress that native English speaker realise it. Being English monoligual or just speaking your mother tongue and English is just being a linguistic nazi and participating to the massive cultural genocide happening right now in the world.
    So it’s not just about travel attitude, it’s about to not being a part of something very wrong.