I never worried too much about potentially running into language barriers before we set out. Maybe I should have, but as it turns out, I didn’t really need to. English is truly universal, like it or not.
While I tried to memorise a few key words from my handy phrasebook in the Triposo app for each new country we entered, 99% of the time it was more of a nice-to-have rather than a need. Anyone in a frontline role serving customers in the countries we visited usually understood a LITTLE bit of English, and with gestures, we could usually bridge the gap if there was one. And of course, anytime you get a group of travellers that hails from different countries, they’ll all communicate in English. It’s a beautiful thing.
But when you DO run up against someone who speaks absolutely no English? It’s frustrating. Words are my currency, both at work and in, well, LIFE. So this past week, which I spent volunteering at an immersive conversational English language programme in Germany, was incredibly interesting. The students there had all decided that for whatever reason, they wanted to improve their fluency in order to get ahead in today’s world. Meeting these Germans for the first time, when they stuttered and paused and generally struggled to find the right words to express themselves, vs the end of the week when sentences flowed much more freely and they started to correct themselves mid-sentence as needed, was supremely rewarding. Language barriers, we slayed you good.
The Anglos on the course mainly consisted of retirees or teachers (which makes sense really, since they’re currently enjoying their summer holidays), though I thought there might be more young travellers like ourselves (and apparently the Spanish courses often skew younger). Most of them had taken part in the programme before, so I was a little apprehensive about how we might fare as newbies. Almost everything I know I gained through simply reading a heckuva lot. I don’t know the rules of grammar inside out. I don’t know what a proposition or a participle is. I work on instinct, honed by years of reading and writing. As it turned out, though, I didn’t need to know the WHYs, though it helped when I did.
It’s always funny when you throw a bunch of strangers together in close quarters, especially for something as intensive as this one-week course. After a few days, you get more comfortable around each other, but tensions also bubble to the surface, certain groups form, and personality clashes become evident. I hate to say it, but a lot of the Americans on the course (who made up the majority of the ‘Anglos’, or English-speaking volunteer teachers) were pretty stereotypically American. The kind who give the US a bad name. Some were lovely for the most part (as long as you avoided saying ANYTHING vaguely critical about the US) while others were of the brash, ‘do you have tea? is it fresh? oh, you don’t have iced tea? well, can I get a pot of tea and a glass of ice cubes so I can make my own iced tea rather than just GET SOMETHING THAT YOU ACTUALLY SERVE?‘ variety.
What really got our goat was how arrogant they could be. For example, one told T that she found him difficult to understand because he “says things wrong”. Certain words and expressions vary in different parts of the world, right? That’s different, not wrong. Americans say purse, those in the UK and down under say handbag. Vacation versus holiday. Gas vs petrol. The list goes on and on. And if we must quibble, then let’s not forget that American English stems from, er, British English. The programme is meant to attract openminded types, but I think we were a tad lacking in diversity within the American contingent in this case.
That aside, it was one of the best experiences of our trip – and maybe even of my life. I’m already scheming to return to Europe to try out the Spanish version of the programme, and maybe visit some of the people we met this week.