Ask Paul: August 27 (Premium)

It’s the last week of August, so let’s kick off the weekend, and the end of the month, a bit early with some great reader questions.
Language barriers
erichk asks:

Paul, I'm curious, when you travel internationally, how do you handle the language barriers? Nowadays we have better tools for that kind of thing, but that wasn't always the case. I know when I finally visited Europe with my parents in 2008, I was fortunate that a lot of people spoke English. Is this true in your case as well?

The availability of language tools like Google Translate, and language learning apps like Duolingo (which I can no longer recommend) and Busuu (which is superior) does help. But there are different levels of language understanding, and while my wife and I are not bilingual or even proficient in some second language, we have both spent many years studying languages---mostly French and Spanish---specifically because we’ve long intended to spend time in countries in which English is not the primary language (and have done so).

Many travel experts advise that visitors learn some key phrases in the language used in the country they’re visiting: Words like “bonjour” and so on. But this is insufficient, even if you’re visiting a major city like Paris or Mexico City where most people do speak some English: It’s not enough to just toss out some easy words when you enter a restaurant or business, you need to make an effort. It’s not on the people there to speak your language, it’s on you to speak theirs. It is astonishing to me how many times someone in another country has apologized to me that they don’t speak English well, when in fact they do, and I always tell them not to do this. The responsibility is ours.

My wife and I are very comfortable with what I call “restaurant Spanish” (or “restaurant French”), meaning that we can pretty much look at a menu written in those languages and not need much help and­­­---and this is the important bit---be able to handle the types of conversations one might have in such a place. For example, when a waiter walks up to your table for the first time, he’s almost certainly going to say hello and ask if we are ready to order drinks or similar; he’s not going to ask if it’s raining outside or what the exchange rate is right now. Context is important.

This bit comes from a conversation my wife had with our son Mark, who is deaf and wears a cochlear implant. When he was young, he was nervous about talking to adults because he was worried about the range of questions they might ask. But as my wife told him, accurately, adults are only going to ask a few questions of a kid: How are you? How are you doing in school? That kind of thing. And that’s exactly what happened.

Our travels often take us outside of comfortable, English-speaking areas, and that’s by design. We routinely have the following conversation no matter where we travel:

Me (in the local language): “Hello....

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