When I first started travelling abroad I made a huge mistake that dramatically changed my quality of life. It’s all to do with being a native English speaker, but not being able to communicate.
The problem is two-fold and it’s important. If you are going on holiday to “Europe” then you should think about whether it’s worth learning a few phrases in the language of the country(ies) you are going to. If not, then it will definitely be worth thinking about modifying your English, and here’s why.
(According to a European Commission Report which goes into a lot more detail and can be found here)
This table is made from a self-reported survey, which is important. These type of surveys will always lead to people either overestimating their ability, or simply lying. For example, opinion polls indicated that more than 40 percent of Americans regularly go to church. However, Hadaway and Marlar (2005) found that the actual attendance was fewer than 22 percent, they did this by looking at the church attendance records themselves.
So, what does that mean for the table above? Well, it means that this number is almost certainly overestimated, although by how much is not clear. People could do this due to embarrassment, or maybe just by not evaluating their abilities properly.
Having now been to the majority of these countries, I would have to say that there is almost certainly an overestimation. I’m not saying that I expect people to speak English, just trying to get to the solution of what us, native English speakers, can do to make our time abroad easier.
The second problem is with our English. But we are native speakers?! What do you mean that I have a problem with MY English?! Well…you may speak perfect English, no one in your country has a problem with understanding you and everyone else speaks like you. English, however, is not a local language anymore, it is a global method of communicating. People will use it for their own purposes, it is a tool.
Poles and Germans can often find a common language in English. Norwegians and Latvians will do the same, and they will bring their non-perfect pronunciations with them. They use English as a means to communicate and therefore they keep it simple and clear, as it is often used in business and clarity is essential. Therefore, colloquialisms almost do not exist, because why would they want to make themselves unclear?
The same goes for pronunciation features. Even something as simple as “How are you?” may cause problems if it is spoken by a native quickly and pronounced more like “How uh you?”. How do I know this? Well, I have lived in Poland teaching English. I have met people who are committed to learning English, and even they struggle with this, so imagine what it’s like for someone who isn’t actively trying to learn.
When I first came to Poland I would ask people “Do you speak English?”, but it would sound more like “dew spee kinglish?”. Native English speakers will push words together and create shortcuts, but in schools in “Europe” they generally have teachers who will pronounce every sound, something that sounds like an over-pronunciation for us.
I used to think that the problem was with them, because I’m native and that’s the end. However, there are more people in Europe who speak their kind of English than the native type. Therefore the problem is more likely with us natives not adapting our English when we are abroad. It’s quite a simple problem to solve, either we over-pronounce slightly, slow down and use simpler words rather than colloquialisms. We can’t honestly expect a, for example, Italian to understand the phrase “like it or lump it” if they are only using English for their business and to communicate with Austrians.
So, to recap. There are two problems. First, less people speak English than you think, and that’s from a self-reported survey. Secondly, they very rarely will understand quick and native English (in my experience about 1% – no I’m not joking).
What can you do as a native English speaker to communicate with people when are you in Europe? Assuming you want to do more than just buy an item from a shop that you can point at. You can learn a bit of the local language. Most people know they struggle in English and it makes them very nervous, they will definitely appreciate your effort. Learning a bit of their language will make your experience nicer as people tend to bend over backwards to help you if you make the effort. Speaking to someone in their native language as opposed to a language they understand really is the difference between speaking to their heart or their head.
You can also slow down and use a lot of signing. Imagine if you had learnt Russian at school, and hadn’t done anything with it since. A Russian then comes into a shop where you work and needs something from you, but refuses to slow down and refuses to help you understand – just expect you to know. How annoying would that be? Make it easy for people and they will make it easy for you.
I’m by no means fluent in Polish, but having put in some effort to learn the language people are SO much more receptive and friendly. You don’t have to spend long, even do it with a phrase book and watch the smiles, the hugs, the pure joy on the faces of people who would otherwise want to avoid talking to you. They will help you learn a bit, help with pronunciation, and maybe even give you a bit more food than you asked for!
Give it a go and see what happens!
Have you been in a situation where something like this has happened to you? What do you think about speaking English abroad?
We would love to hear from you, so let us know what you think.