We’ve all heard the concern: ‘I would never go to there, I don’t speak the language.’ It was something I always dismissed and never gave much thought to, taking for granted that people speak English all over the world. I realized my assumption was just that- an assumption.
I’m not entirely sure why but when we landed in Germany I expected things to be in English- street signs, menus, plaques at historic sights. Maybe it was due to hearing stories from my aunt who traveled to Germany for business years ago and said all anyone wanted to do was practice their English with her as soon as they found out she was American. Maybe it was because language had never been an issue before when traveling: I didn’t have a problem in Iceland or Greece. (In hindsight most likely due to the fact that the only people who speak/read Icelandic or Greece are Icelandic or Greek).
Germany was an abrupt wakeup call. You see, I don’t speak German. At all. Not a single word. I took Spanish all through high school and college- which wasn’t helpful. Every stop we made along our road trip became a frustrating experience for me. I couldn’t communicate with anyone. Some places had German menus only. No one on staff spoke English. I couldn’t read the menu to find out what food they had or determine what I might like. I couldn’t ask any questions, if I’d had them. I had to rely on Ben to translate the menu to me, tell the staff what I wanted, relay any questions they might have asked in response, and respond with my answer. I was helpless.
You might think ‘Well, you should have just stuck with the big cities. You wouldn’t have had a problem there.’ And you’d be wrong. The restaurant we went to in Munich had English menus but our waitress didn’t speak English. We were also there during Oktoberfest, quite possibly the world’s largest tourist attraction.
On more than one occasion I would walk into a restaurant hopeful and hungry only to leave frustrated and defeated. I felt isolated. I felt useless. I felt ignorant. I felt this urge to explain to everyone that I wasn’t the stereotypical American that thought everyone should speak English and didn’t feel the need to learn another language themselves. I spoke a foreign (to me) language- just not the one they spoke. I wanted so badly to be able to communicate. The desire to communicate combined with the inability to do so was exhausting. I ended up in tears once we were back in the car multiple times.
I’ve always had so much respect for people that leave their home and start over in a new place where they don’t know the language or culture or anyone there. Getting just a small taste of what it’s like to not be able to communicate with others while in a strange place increased that respect tenfold. It takes incredible strength to take that leap- strength I’m not sure I could muster.
By no means am I writing this to tell you not to go somewhere because you don’t know the language. Quite the opposite. Go. Feel lonely and frustrated and helpless. Put yourself in that situation. Learn from the experience. Grow from it.
It taught me a valuable lesson: never assume there will be exceptions for you. Never take it for granted that people in other places will speak the same language as you. And above all, don’t let that discourage you. Prepare to face the challenge, head on. I have no intention of only traveling to places where English is the first language. I have a world to see- a great, big, beautiful world full of countless languages. Before my next adventure, I’ll come prepared with a translation app so I can at least read the menu.