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:
- 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.
- 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.