It was three years ago when sophomore Silvia Lee, knowing little about the Japanese language, went to Japan during summer break. Lee said because she was fluent in English and because she knew that English was taught in Japan, she had not worried too much about communication before the trip.
According to Lee, during the trip she sometimes felt frustrated because some people could not understand what she was saying in English. She discovered that although many people outside of the United States study English, it is very hard for them to have a flowing conversation.
“My family was at a restaurant once in Japan. We told the person what we wanted in English, but we mostly just pointed at the different choices on the menu and used a lot of hand gestures. It was kind of frustrating because we had to do so many different things to try to simply order food. When we got our food, it was a lot of stuff we didn’t even know,” Lee said.
German teacher and world language department chair, Angelika Becker said experiences like Lee’s are not uncommon. Becker said, “I would say [Americans] are more egocentric, not egotistical, because Americans can travel for a few days and never have to speak another language. They don’t have to learn a different language. The way Americans perceive themselves is pretty egocentric. They think, ‘We are the center of the world and everything else revolves around us.”
According to englishlanguageguide.com, over 700 million people speak English as a foreign language and it is currently one of the most widely spoken and written languages in the world. Despite this large number, Lee said that she faced many communication problems on her trip to Japan. According to Lee, her trip to Japan has changed the way she prepares for every vacation.
Lee soon discovered that some people were frustrated with her because she could not speak Japanese well. “I was at a hot springs in Japan once. And when one of the ladies found out that I only spoke English, she just stopped talking to me. Some people seemed a little frustrated and annoyed because we could not speak Japanese,” Lee said.
Becker said she had similar experiences when she first came to America in 1983 from Germany. “I did face some difficulties, but that was because of me. Because I didn’t know how to say things, I didn’t say anything at all. So the first several weeks there I didn’t speak to anybody except my husband because I was just not sure what to say and how to say it,” Becker said.
Becker has also traveled to many different European countries including Italy, France, the Czech Republic, England and Spain. According to Becker, although she is now fluent in English and knows that most people around the globe know how to speak English, she makes sure she knows at least a few common phrases when she is traveling to show the locals that she is not ignorant and that she knows she is in another country.
Lee said that because English is so universal, many Americans do not bother to study other languages. “Most people in this world know some English, so many people don’t bother to learn other languages if they are fluent in English,” she said.
Senior Theresa Lipp said she believes it is understandable that Americans assume everyone speaks English because is now a widely taught language. “When Europeans travel to other European countries, they speak English because everyone speaks English somewhat. When I lived in Germany six years ago, most schools required students to learn two to three languages. English is usually very popular because it is widely used,” Lipp said.
However, Lipp said she still believes it is important to learn other languages. “It is important because then, people know you respect their language and you at least attempted to learn it.”
The best way to prepare to travel to a different country is to buy a travel guide. There are usually a list of essential phrases and important traditional customs that travelers should know, according to Becker.
Lee said she agrees. “I think the best thing to do is definitely get a travel guide, Lee said. “Now, I buy travel books before going outside of the country. After my family trip to Japan, I realized that I would have had a better experience if I had known the language and the basic customs there. There wouldn’t have been such a great language barrier and I would have been able to learn so much more.”