As English speakers, we have an undeniable privilege: people all around the world clamor to learn our native tongue. The same can be said for any number of other languages, of course, but English carries the unique distinction of being a sort of lingua franca for many types of cross-cultural encounters. On a recent trip to China (yup, that’s where I’ve been the last couple of weeks!), it really sank home for me just how lucky we are.
I don’t speak a word of any Chinese language, and neither does the girl I traveled with. And yes, there were times we had communication issues. But we also found a lot of people who spoke English. Maybe just a few words, maybe fluency. That’s not the point here. The point is, as travelers, we’re used to enjoying the benefits of a widely-spoken tongue. Other countries sometimes criticize Americans for not learning foreign languages, and English speakers more generally for not bothering to speak a local tongue when they travel. The truth is, we really do expect others to speak our tongue. We expect to find someone, somewhere, who can tell us what we need to know, in our own language. We don’t expect to HAVE to adapt. We think we can fall back on what’s comfortable.
I’m not justifying language laziness. Instead, I’d like you to think about how lucky you are to have this privileged tongue in your linguistic arsenal. Imagine you’re from Romania, and you’ve never learned any English. You take a trip to China. You don’t speak any Chinese dialects, and really need help finding a specific store. The only way to find it is to ask someone on the street. How would you do it? You can pretty much guarantee that a random passerby wouldn’t speak Romanian. So what would you do? Now imagine you’re French, on a trip to China. Again, no Chinese dialects, and you need help. You might find someone who speaks French- who knows. But you’re also likely to switch into your grade school English to get what you need.
Yes, there are places in the world where English is not widespread. And there’s plenty of people who don’t speak it in China, too- my friend and I got really good at pointing and gesturing. But the takeaway here is to think about how good you have it- then think about what it’d be like if your native tongue was something less “relevant” in today’s world. we only have this privilege because English has gained cultural importance in today’s world. But “relevant” languages do come and go- after all, Latin and French have both had their heydays. So there’s no guarantee that English will forever be the default language of cultural crossover. And if the default language suddenly becomes Romanian- what will you do?