One of the pleasures of being a traveller in a new and exotic place is not understanding the language. Of course, being an English speaker you will always find a person with whom you can communicate.
However, being oblivious to conversations on the streets and in the shops, to the television blathering away, or the radio gibbering unidentifiable diphthongs and guttural sounds is part of what makes a place seem friendly, right? Or, on the other hand, maybe gaining independence and challenging yourself might be the better path, untrodden? Interested in a little more insight?
Sometimes ignorance is bliss
Well, sometimes. Settling into a new country, and among other things, wrestling with those first few words and phrases in a new language can be thrilling.
Making an initial connection feels like gaining a new sense or power. The ability to sit down at a café and strain out a phrase painstakingly memorised with a hopeful inflection added onto each word, praying for the listener to understand and watching as the understanding slowly flashes across their face, probably mixed with a bit of bemusement in the listener, is a kind of joy.
Locals love a traveller or newcomer who is just coping with their language. They cajole answers with slowly-paced questions, smiling and nodding as you piece together pat answers.
How long have you been here?
Are you married?
Where are you from?
What do you do?
Do you like the food?
Over the years I have memorised that little act in five languages over as many countries. Work on it long enough to be able to add a little tweak to your answers: “No, I‘m not married, but I have a dog,” and get ready for laughs.
It’s all good fun during that linguistic honeymoon, but like marriage, it can get tiring after a while. Working hard for years to learn a new language opens up the culture and endless opportunities in a strange land.
The ability to read, write and speak frees you from needing a tender. Unfortunately, fluency can’t be read on your face as your otherness can. In places where the locals aren’t used to foreigners speaking their language, gaining a level of fluency can be frustrating and often times insulting.
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In countries like the United States or Australia where people from across the globe have come to live, we take it for granted that no matter what a person looks like, they belong, and therefore speak the language.
This is not the case necessarily, though, in countries where all ‘others’ are foreigners and the assumption is that you are essentially deaf and mute. This being so, locals will talk about you without censorship or niceties. When you reach a level of speaking like a local, you lift that veil. It’s like finding a magic pair of glasses that reveals hidden monsters everywhere you look.
Is fluency an advantage or a burden?
In the smallish Thai city where I live, most ex-pats, foreigners or Farangs put little stock in learning Thai. The demographic is generally older, retired, western men who are generally married to middle-aged Thai women and communicate in Thainglish or Tarzan English as my little group of friends like to call it. Those outside of that overwhelming majority are keener to learn. I often wonder though who in the end is better served?
Yes, I can go to the motor vehicle office and renew my tax and insurance by myself, or to a tailor to have a shirt altered or sit down in a restaurant I’ve never been and order food the way I want it, but I can’t do any of these things without going through the initiation process of letting people know that, yes, I am speaking Thai and, yes, I understand you, and if I am doing this then, yes, I must be living here for some time.
When I see my older counterpart sat on a bench, lazily breezing through his iPhone as his wife takes care of all the chit chat and paperwork and then, with a thank you in the native language, receives big grins from staff and comments of how polite he may be, I wonder, is it worth the hard work?
Is fluency an advantage or a burden? Sometimes both, but it is for each individual to decide whether it’s worth the work to be able to speak the lingo. What side of the coin do you fall on?