On the polite use of English
When it is appropriate to use English when traveling in a foreign country and how to do so without insulting your hosts
The old joke goes that if you speak three languages, you're trilingual; if you speak two, you're bilingual; and if you speak only one language, well, then you must be an American.
Americans are notorious for barging through Europe demanding, loudly, that everyone speak English. These rude rubes seem to think that the proper way to ask after the toilet facilities in French, Italian, Spanish, or German is to shout "WHERE...IS...THE...BATH...ROOM!"
Sometimes English isn't enough. Most train schedules and signs use the native names for cities. Here are some of those in Europe:
Athinai = Athens
Firenze = Florence
Iruñea = Pamplona
Köln = Cologne
København = Copenhagen
Lisboa = Lisbon
München = Munich
Napoli = Naples
Praha = Prague
Venezia = Venice
Wien = Vienna
When you're in a foreign country, never assume that the people there will—or expect that they should—speak English. Nothing is more arrogant. You are their guest; use their language.
Prove the stereotypes wrong by learning the basics of the local lingo before you arrive in town and by being eager to pick up more from anyone who will teach you along the way. At the very least you can memorize the native ways to say "yes," "no," "please," and "thank you." Not only is this polite, but it'll tend to get you better service as well.
Still, on occasion, resorting to English is the best way to get your message across clearly, especially if you're just starting out on learning the local language. Just be polite about it, and always ask first "Do you speak English?" in local lingo. Most will reply "Yes, a leettle English," and then prove to be surprisingly fluent. Chances are they will speak it very well indeed; most Europeans under the age of 35 or 40 or so learned at least some English in school.
When speaking English:
- Use only simple, direct words
- Use short, simple sentences
- Do not use extra words
- Do not use contractions
- Avoid idiomatic expressions or strange turns of phrase that don’t translate literally
- Speak slowly
- Enunciate clearly
Remember, folks working in the tourism industry will know at least the words and phrases they need to do their jobs—all those Berlitz phrases and words for booking hotel rooms, describing what's in dishes, purchasing train tickets, rattling off open hours and admission prices, etc.
What's more, they can probably handle these conversations not just in English but also French, Spanish, German, and Japanese with a few phrases in Mandarin and Arabic as well. I don’t know about you, but that impresses the heck out of me, and I try to respect their talents by showing them I've at least mastered the basics in their tongue as well.
This phrase sheet will help.