What International Travel has taught me about English

English is my native language, and I’m very grateful that my mother tongue is basically the Latin of the 21st century – the language of universal commerce. I say grateful because I always want to keep an attitude of humility when it comes to the global dominance of my language. I never want to be one of those travelers who, upon arriving on a foreign shore, arrogantly expects the locals to speak English and is offended when they don’t. I appreciate every person in another country who does speak English to me, and I usually try to learn at least a greeting or a thank you in the local language.

I’m far from being a seasoned traveler, but my experiences both overseas and with foreigners in America has taught me a few things about my beloved English.

Normal conversational speech is way too fast. And I’m from the American South where we taaaalk….reeaall…sloooow. If you’re in a non-English-speaking nation, or talking to a local at home who is still learning English, slow it down. Whatever you think is absurdly slow is probably still a little fast, especially if the other person’s English is very poor. And be sure to annunciate each word. We all tend to mumble and blend our words in the comfort of our mother tongue. A side note: resist the urge to shout. The other person knows English as a second, third, or fourth language – their hearing is probably fine. I tend to be soft spoken, so I’m not usually a shouter, but if I have to repeat myself several times, I do remind myself to speak slower and clearer, not necessarily louder.

Don’t judge or correct. If someone says something to me that makes grammatical sense but not contextual sense, I ask for clarification about the word that I think they might have misused. Asking for clarification or explanation is a more polite way of letting the non-English speaking person know that they goofed. Nobody likes to embarrassed, even if they made a legitimate mistake. By using this technique, I’ve often had the other person admit they probably used the wrong word and ask me for help. It’s much nicer to be asked to help someone with their English than to be the language police making corrections all the time. Also, whenever I’m tempted to judge someone’s English or get impatient, I ask myself how well I would do at talking to them in their language. Since I know far less Norwegian/Chinese/Farsi/etc. than they know English, I choose to be grateful that they’re trying to communicate with me at all.

English is hard. Grammar and spelling rules, exceptions to those rules, different pronunciations for the same letter combinations… Even us native speakers – and yes, even us grammar nerds – have trouble remembering all the rules and conventions of English. Yes, every language has its quirks and inconsistencies, but most everyone agrees that English is near the top of the list of difficult to learn. I’m always appreciative when someone has taken the time and mental effort to learn English, even just a little bit. Again, if I ever catch myself growing impatient with a non-native speaker’s improper use of sentence structure – like saying “You is” or something – I remind myself that I likely couldn’t do half that well in their language. And again, I keep an attitude of gratitude. I’m thankful and humbled that I was born into an English speaking culture. Not because English is better than other languages, but because I’m blessed that one of the complex languages of the world today comes naturally to me.

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4 thoughts on “What International Travel has taught me about English

  1. I, also, feel very blessed to have been raised with English as my first (and only) language. I tend to shout even to people who do not understand me when their first language is English, also. Haha, if I ever want to go to a foreign country, which I might, I might have to remind myself every ten minutes not to shout.

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