The English-speaking monolingual often rises above criticism from others; when it comes to visiting a foreign country, they claim they can get by well enough using their own language.
But is getting by really anything to be proud of?
As an English-speaking traveler, from the moment you touch down in a foreign land, you are faced with a barrage of signs, questions, choices and challenges. If none of these make a blind bit of sense, it’s already a portent that your trip is not going to be the trip it could have.
Most foreigners with a smattering of English will come to the aid of a floundering tourist, either through a series of begrudging grunts, or in the best-case scenario, cheerily and helpfully. But by approaching them with English, rather than their own language, an invisible divide has already been erected.
Nelson Mandela perhaps best described this divide when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” In other words, show that you care for the culture you’re in, and the culture you’re in will care for you.
Knowledge of a second language is tantamount to owning a second passport.
This passport though is a thousand times more exciting and liberating than the one you had stamped at the airport. With even a foundational knowledge of a foreign language, new opportunities open themselves up, sometimes even before the trip has begun.
For example, those headed for Spain with a satisfactory grasp of Spanish can consider staying with a host family, rather than booking accommodation in a more touristy location. Not only does this mean saving on hotel fees (and hopefully having your meals cooked for you), but also more importantly, you’ve immediately positioned yourself right in the center of that culture.
If there’s a religious festival, you might be asked to participate. If there’s a football match, you might be invited to go and watch at the local bar. If there’s a political debate raging, you’ll be able to understand what it’s about, and what it means to the everyday citizen.
Non-native-speaking travelers tend to shy away from asking questions and involving themselves in general scenarios where language is present (i.e. 99% of all scenarios). Rather than risk finding out if that street food tastes as good as it looks, the non-savvy traveler might err into the nearest McDonald’s, just to be on the safe side. Without the knowledge of the native language they’re in, the English-speaking traveler experiences only a fraction of the country’s genuine culture.
Of course, even the fluent multilingual never stops learning; there are nuances, phrases, colloquialisms and new words to be learned every day. Just think about how many times you’ve been reading a novel or newspaper in your own language, and been prompted to look up the meaning of a word.
The difference is of course, that when a bilingual is abroad, they’re not merely ‘getting by.’ They can swim around and explore the depths of a culture, scooping up new pearls of wisdom as they do so, rather than frantically treading water, doing their best stay alive.
And the advantages of multilingualism stretch far beyond the obvious. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on studies that have proved bilinguals have a more heightened awareness of their environment than monolinguals. As Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Spain explains, “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often... It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” This enhanced awareness of surroundings is precisely the sort of skill a traveler benefits from when faced with a foreign environment.
Here arises another advantage of being bilingual: safety.
An awareness of environment equates to an improved chance of remaining safe inside it. For instance, to wander around a busy marketplace, dazzled by the alien language, signs and accents will instantly render any tourist a more attractive mark for pickpockets. If, on the other hand, the tourist is walking from stall to stall confidently, acknowledging signs, referring to prices and chatting with vendors about their produce, chances are they’ll avoid a potential robbery.
Getting by is one thing, but actually experiencing a trip abroad is quite another. No amount of guidebooks and online research can compensate for a basic lack of language ability.
And if we follow the advice of Nelson Mandela, our trips abroad will be remembered not just with our minds, but also in our hearts.