Solo Travel: Do You Speak English?

No big deal? Curious? Surprised? Shocked? What are your instincts telling you? How do you deal with this question when heard at home? Do you deal with this question differently when you travel?

In all honesty, I believe that it is a legitimate question to ask someone – especially if you’re lost.  I have been asked many times and take no issue to the question. It is what may follow the question that can make me livid. What’s that you ask? The physical gesture to complement the question asked with a “consoling” hand on the arm, hand gestures that look like a shadow puppet duck “talking”, or maybe, you witness the loud, slow talking person with their index finger pointed to their mouth.

As a traveller in foreign places, how would you deal with a situation like that? Do you step in and politely correct them? Or, do you let it roll off your back and walk away?

Take a moment, step back and think about the answer.

One could feel disgusted at the way the question and gesture(s) ooze with condescension. Perhaps, it is as simple as inexperience to no fault of their own. This incredibly common question can stir up a number of emotions and reactions. Is it an impolite question to ask?  No. However, the unnecessary physical gestures make the question extremely rude and unacceptable.

What I love about the City of Toronto is its integration, diversity and multi-culturalism. It is a place that is rich and diverse in race, culture, religion, language, sexual orientation …just to name a few. As a Torontonian (born and raised) and Asian, I feel that we are very spoiled by the easy access to the myriad of local cuisines, traditions and cultures from across the globe. I also understand that this uniqueness in a city is an aberration compared to the majority of the world.

I grew up in an area where Asians were pretty much non-existent and a socio-economic status that didn’t necessarily “fit” what my parents did for work. Growing up, I lied. I lied about what my parents did for work because I was embarrassed, I lied about my plans for the summer because we didn’t have a cottage and worst of all, I lied to myself every moment of every day wishing I was a different ethnicity – believing it would make life less difficult. One day, you hit your breaking point and you realize that you gotta toughen up, laugh at the jokes and let it roll off your back or, you’re stuck fighting a battle that will never be won.

While swapping travel stories with someone, she had mentioned to me that I was “one of those Canadians” with the Canada flag patched on my backpack. I didn’t even know what “one of those Canadians” even meant given I had just started backpacking on my own not too long ago. Apparently, it means you’re a dork or something to that effect. I had to then further explain my reasoning for the flag, as it saved me a lot time given most people assumed I didn’t speak English at all. I’ve had people shout “Ni hao” from across the street assuming I was Mandarin or telling me, they’ve visited my land before… this to me is not unusual to encounter (at home or abroad).

I’ve had some pretty gnarly encounters with other travellers, and it blew my mind what guts some people had to utter the crap they did. The one that stuck the most was while I was in Portugal, this person did an exchange program in China and we were discussing travels to Asia. I thought it was a decent conversation until the person said, “I know you are Canadian, but how do your parents feel about being traitors for leaving China?” So, I fought every fibre of my being not to do/say what I would have naturally been inclined to do/say. I responded with, “Pretty f****g great, I’d imagine. Canada is awesome!”

Travel to me is a privilege and not a right. It is an opportunity to explore a place that is new and exciting outside the comforts of home. Also, being a guest would naturally mean that you should be respectful of what and who are around you.  I would say that 98% of the people I’ve met during my travels are kind and lovely people.

Remember, there are many ways to strike up a conversation, but before you consider asking a fellow traveller if they speak English, why don’t you just ask, “Where are you travelling from?”

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9 thoughts on “Solo Travel: Do You Speak English?

  1. As a European, I’ve never thought “do you speak English?” could be a condescending question – it annoys me more when English speakers EXPECT everyone to speak English. Also, speaking slowly and clearly is something that I always appreciate, even if I speak fluent English myself, and I always aim for that myself in situations where it’s most important to try to get your point across. English is such a varied language that what you might think sounds “normal” sounds incomprehensible to someone else, and toning down one’s accent never hurt anyone.

    • Love your insight, Jenni. I am totally with you, it is super annoying when you come across English speakers expecting everyone to speak English. T Agreed speaking slowly and clearly is important, I find it challenging watching others make the rude gestures. As I said in my post, it’s not the question that is condescending; It’s the inappropriate gestures that follow the question. One of the many beauties of travel is allowing ourselves to meet others from across to globe, learn about ourselves and others through communication. I think travel is the best form of education 🙂

  2. Hmmm, would you be asking the question in English, then? 😉 I think your 98% mirrors our experience, too. I can count on one hand the icky encounters. I tend to think when you meet someone it’s an exchange of energy. If you’re putting out good energy, you’ll get it in return.

    • Totally with you. It’s all about the positive vibes! Gnarly encounters will come along but I’m super grateful and stoked for all my travel experiences.

  3. Interesting post! As a native English speaker I’m forever feeling guilty that I don’t have to learn the language to get by (especially in Asia). It’s so horrible witnessing the rude gestures but luckily they’ve also been few and far between with me. Not that long ago I was asked for the first time by another European if I spoke English. My first thoughts were wow, that was nice and friendly and good for him not assuming! I realised I often assume and need to change that.

    • Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t ever feel guilty. It’s also never too late to learn another language 🙂 I do my best practice Spanish to help get me by as my travels are focussed on Latin America right now. I think it’s more shocking for me when it’s a traveller, taking a crass tone with a local.

  4. As an native English speaker it’s difficult to go to many places and attempt to converse in the local language. Most of the time they’ll say “oh don’t worry, I speak English” Noooo I want to learn the language!!!
    And I agree, it’s always a strange experience when you meet a fellow traveller that’s not nice and friendly. Why are they travelling in the first place?!

    • I’m totally with you. In my opinion, travel is the best education one can receive. It’s hands on and provides you with experiences that text books, webinars or classes can teach you. Language, culture and just acceptance of human beings as they are 🙂 Keep spreading your positive vibes

  5. I have grown up in a very multicultural area of the UK so to be honest there are people of all backgrounds who I have interacted with but I would never ask if anyone spoke English just based on their appearance. I am used to people of all cultures, religions and colours speaking English. In many ways when people ask me if I speak English when I travel sometimes I can feel targeted but often when travelling it’s us asking that question if we need help.

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