Two reasons not to be afraid of traveling outside the English speaking world.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that are afraid, or let’s so shy, of trying to travel outside the English speaking world. Here are two reasons not to be.

First English is the world’s second language

I remember the first time I traveled to a country where English wasn’t the official language. It was 20 years ago and after visiting London where they speak something occasionally close to English (j/k) I took the Eurostar to Paris.  I remember studying intensely how to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French”, along with a few other phrases I thought I needed.  I also remember the first time I walked into a shop and tried using said phrase being laughed at and told “no you certainly don’t” in near perfect English.

At the time I took that encounter as something unexpected, not the rudeness of it that was expected in Paris, but the English fluency of the person I needed to speak to. I thought, “how fortunate this person speaks English!”  20 years later I can say that’s it’s actually pretty hard to get more than 10 meters from a non-English speaker while traveling.

Let me be extremely clear, I’m not saying you can’t find non-English speakers, nor that you can’t actually get away from them, just that it takes some serious effort and is unlikely to happen accidently. An example…

Taking a pedicab to a coffee shop in Malang, Indonesia

This morning I decided it was about time I find a coffee shop in Malang. I found a well regarded one a 15 minute walk away. I actually didn’t plan on walking though because it’s hot, and as I needed to check out of my hotel first I’d be carrying all my stuff. Instead I planned on making use of the pedicab that I had seen parked along the road right where the hotel driveway meets the road every time I’ve left the hotel.

Now I’ve seen a lot of traditional human powered pedicabs and rickshaws around the world and I can assure you, not one of the drivers speaks any English. If they did they wouldn’t be pushing a pedicab around for 5,000 IDR ($0.40) a trip. Surprisingly however the pedicab I expected to find however was not there at the hotel exit. Thankfully, I recalled that two nights prior when I walked to the nearby Indra Mart (like 7-11) I noticed a pedicab rank next to the street food vendors right around the corner.

I marched that direction and as turned the corner sure enough a pedicab driver noticed me “coming right at him“. He stood excitedly and I nodded to him that yes indeed this white skinned foreigner was about to ask to hop on his pedicab.

I knew there was no chance the driver would speak english so I prepared a little. When I looked up the coffee shop on Google Maps I also took note of the nearest local landmark. In this case a traffic circle with a small monument in the middle of it. I knew that if that didn’t work I could still point where I needed to go easily enough, but I didn’t need to do either. No sooner had I said “Alun-alun Tugu” to the pedicab driver as did a younger man standing nearby jumped up to help translate and confirm for the pedicab driver that yes indeed Alun-alun tugu was where I was asking to go.

It was a lovely ride.

As you can see I the locals make heavy use of pedicabs for short distances too:

And there were are circling the traffic circle, with Alun-alun Tugu monument in the middle.

Operation pedicab to coffee shop complete.

Getting a taxi to make multiple stops in Malang, Indonesia

My friend in Malang is having a baby in a few weeks so I decided it’d be a nice gesture to buy them a small baby gift. I thought baby clothes of some kind would be an easy to buy gift for a soon to be new born boy. I located a nearby store which seemed to sell “things for babies”m but it was rather unclear from their Facebook page (of course they don’t have an actual website) if they only sold things like strollers and bottle sanitizers or if they actually sold other things like baby clothes. I’d find out soon enough.

I asked the front desk of the hotel to call a taxi for me. Once upon a time it was necessary to learn left, right, go straight in the local language so you could give a Taxi driver directions when needed. These days Taxi’s the world over are accustomed to having smart phones with Google Maps brought up shoved in their faces. I remember not long ago when handed a smart phone taxi drivers stumbled and have no idea how swiping and zooming worked, but now, they’re all pros. However, I didn’t even need to do that here.

The taxi arrived and I asked the doorman, who spoke perfect English, to explain to the taxi driver that I needed to first go to this baby store and then needed to be driven to the fancy restaurant at the far end of town where I was treating my friend and his wife for dinner.

Taxi drivers here don’t speak a lot of English because frankly there are not a lot of tourists. However when pressed all 5 taxis I took this weekend including this one, spoke at least a little they were just very shy about making use of it. Which is to say all the drivers new more than enough that I could have communicated these “two stop” instructions to them myself without a word of Indonesian if I needed to, but sometimes it’s just a lot more expedient to let the locals translate.

A few minutes later we successfully arrived at the Hompila Baby Store in Malang about 1.5km from my hotel. I told him in awful Indonesian “Saya segera” (“I’ll be quick”) and he said something that sounded like gibberish but I clearly understood to me “I understand, I’ll wait right here”.

Baby shopping in Malang, Indonesia

I walked into the baby store, exactly like I have at hundereds of other times around the world. I looked around briefly hoping to spot exactl what I wanted, but in hurry I didn’t waste much time before I found a sales clerk (which is easy since stores have about 10x the staff that American stores do and they’re all eager to help).

In extremely clumsy fashion the first thing out said to the clerk “Anda bisa bicara bahasa inggris”. As you can guess, that’s “Do you speak English” in Bahasa Indonesian. I try to _assume_ the people I’m speak with don’t speak English. I don’t know why, but I feel a bit weird just assuming they do. Now, I tried but it probably sounded totally wrong because she cocked her head, winced a but and looked at me. Never a good sign, but she was trying to understand me. I simplified things by simple saying “English?”, with a raised eyebrow and a smile. At which point she clearly understood as she giggled, then guided me hastily over to a young male clerk at the cash register who asked “Yes sir, please how can I help you?”.

The clerk helped me quickly find the baby socks I wanted. They were upstairs among sea of pink things. I didn’t even realize it had an upstairs when I first started looking. I found some cute brown ones with monkeys and some yellow ones with little giraffes on them. The same clerk guided me back down stairs and helped me checkout and then helped me get it wrapped up in a gift bag. Outside the taxi was waiting outside ready to get me to dinner on-time. Mission accomplished.

Is Malang off the tourist trail?

Malang is a big-ish city with a University, so it’s far from rural, but it’s not really a foreign tourist destination. As I sit right now in the Abdul Rachman (MLG) airport looking around at the 300 people in the gate area and I’m pretty sure I’m the only caucasian person here. I’m sure there are a few other foreigners but I can’t spot them.

Malang is not a metropolis, however it is a proper city with a university and a large regional hospital. It’s unsurprising that there are people here that speak English. However it’s my belief that it’s really not that, because I see this everywhere. It’s my belief that the main reason that it is nearly impossible to find anyone under 30 that doesn’t speak passable English anymore is simply this: internet.  

English is the predominant language on the Internet

Even if the internet uses all languages, and legions of people work tirelessly to translate it into the many languages of the world, much of the internet starts in and remains only in English.

Yes, many people around the world actively learn English because it’s the lingua franca of tourists everywhere (someday I’ll write about the fact all tourists everywhere from France to China speak to staff in hotels and restaurants in English, as well as to each other in English). Hospitality staff learning English though isn’t why it’s so hard to find yourself somewhere without an english speaker at hand. That’s one thing, but what doesn’t get talked about is that kids today learning English to play video games and to chat with other friends that don’t speaker their language.

Ok, sum up the two reasons:

  1. It is really hard when traveling anymore to come across someone that doesn’t speak English and at the same time to have no one near-by ready and willing to help translate that does.
  2. If you do manage to find that mythical place without English speakers, a few hand gestures and maybe a smart phone are likely all you need to get anywhere or anything you desire.

If you’re really adventurous…  go ahead and wait at the curb for a local bus to come by, carefully make sure there are no school aged kids on the bus…  then hop and and ride it a long long way…  When it stops, maybe, on only maybe, you’ll be in that magical place without an english speaker within earshot. However, don’t be surprised if you’re still not there.


  1. love the quick vids. iPhone?

    • Yup, iPhone 6. Elena and I have been trying to shoot more little videos… it’s an experiment. FWIW, I still carry my “bigger” FujiFilm XT-10 when I know I’ve got things I want to shoot (ie. I’m out actively site seeing) and while it shoots video I’ve never once felt the need to use it to shoot video. I guess if I was shooting longer videos where framing/zooming etc.. might come into play I might.

  2. “It is really hard when traveling anymore to come across someone that doesn’t speak English and at the same time to have no one near-by ready and willing to help translate that does.”

    Not very hard to find that places. I spend month in Taipei and meet lots of people that don’t speak English. But Japan was even worst than Taipei.
    Because my second language is English – so I always assume people are speaking English… Assume wrong. Going back “home” from Osaka when train was cancelled was quite adventure when on train station staff didn’t speak English and I didn’t had internet in my phone to use google translator.

    I love to try local foods – so I go where locals eat – very often there is language barier.
    It is easier in Thailand, because they are like fast, fast – cant decide? We will give you something good to eat, sit down and wait. Thats awesome.
    In Taipei… I don’t read Chineses and even asking owner with google translator to pick something for me did fail. They wont decide for you.

    That are not some separate cases for me. Now I’m in Singapore… and they all speak English (Singlish) here – so it nice to not have to point finger or use translator.

    Or maybe its just my luck 😉

    • That’s so interesting! I hadn’t really thought about non-native english speakers traveling and having trouble understanding or recognizing what language people are speaking to them in. This was really about native english speaking American’s concerns about traveling. Non-native speakers have to have a lot more difficult time.

      I am (someday) going to write a post about that though because I do find it fascinating to her Chinese tourists speaking to Thai locals in English.. and Russian people speaking to Italian locals in English.

      Another thing I’ve thought about is how difficult it must be for locals to parse to parse American, English, Australian, New Zealand, South Africa and non-native accents speaking English. I have trouble understanding them sometimes!

      See you soon in Singapore!

      • ” having trouble understanding or recognizing what language people are speaking to them in.”
        LOL. When I wrote that I assume that everyone is speaking English I didn’t meant that I can’t recognize what language they speaking. I always start with English (because I assume they will know it and none knows Polish) and then it goes wrong, because they don’t… and the I have to use fingers, translator, few words I know in local language…
        – Can I have cup of tea?
        – … silence… empty eyes… lots of words in Mandarin/Japanes…
        and then its time to take out phone for translator.

        In lucky version there is nice person that translates what I want.

        When I started my journey 9 months ago I didn’t even think about that problem – that I will hit language barrier somewhere. Well – being lost on Osaka train station made me sweat like a rat (I’m lost, my phone is useless, I’m alone) and think that I have to prepare better next time 🙂

        So I see we are not only going to meet in Singapore but also in Tokyo for WordCamp?

  3. I traveled a lot before the Internet and smart phones. I speak a little French and even less Italian. We always managed with hand gestures pointing and laughing. I even went on a date with an Italian who had a few words of English. Growing up in New York I was accustomed to people with little or no English. More recently in Japan we went to many local restaurants with no English speakers. With the plastic food it was easy to pick something palatable. Most food was excellent. In South America I could grasp meaning and picked up necessary words because of knowing some French. I always try to learn all the polite words before going somewhere. Most people are kind and want to help so it usually works out even if there is some adventure along the way.

    • Hand gestures and a laugh will get you far for sure!

      There I’ve been to plenty of local food stall and restaurants all over where no one spoke English, it’s just English is pretty much unnecessary when ordering food.

      I go to Japan for the first time (excluding airport transits) in a few weeks. With Japanese abroad (Hawaii and all over Asia) I’ve always found they tend to be pretty shy about speaking English even even though they can quite well. That’s not too unusual actually, I find a lot of people are shy. After I hear “No English” and I follow it with trying to speak a few words in their language. That often convinces them that they speak English better than I speak their language and they at switch.

  4. I actually had a couple people ask if I would have a conversation with them so they could practice their English. In France I spoke some French and they frequently took pity and spoke English. I understand a lot more French than I speak. Have a wonderful trip. If you get a chance visit Tsumago and Magome, between Kyoto and Tokyo in the countryside.

    • Years ago I would get requests to practice English quite often. I haven’t gotten one in a while though. Indi rather enjoy it, and I always manage to get a few words of the local language learned in return.

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