No hablas ingles?

Jolene from the US moved to Oviedo, Spain and thinks it alarming that some of the other expats she has met simply do not bother learning the language. Here is her short rant about how disrespectful it is to assume that English is a universal language and that regardless of how difficult it is for someone to learn a new language, it is important that they at least try.

I prepared myself for my overseas assignment: I took Spanish lessons and listened to tapes and learned about the Spanish culture. Clearly that was too much to ask of some of the other English native speaker expats in Oviedo! I am simply appalled. How can you have the audacity to go into a shop in Spain and ask “hablas ingles?” (“do you speak English?”) and then, when of course the answer is usually no, be indignant and proclaim the Spaniards ‘ignorant’. Excuse me, but who is the ignorant fool in all this?
I know that learning a foreign language is anything but easy, especially for someone who has learned only one language his entire life and suddenly, as an adult, is forced to speak another. Yet truth be told, one needn’t be fluent in a language, simply trying and showing some sort of interest in another person’s culture should do the trick.

Let me briefly give an example of how embarrassed I once was when I went to the market on a Thursday morning in Oviedo. The open-air market, I should first state, is where mostly locals go to do their weekly shopping. The sellers are farmers from around the area selling their produce, livestock and other knick knacks. It is mainly housewives or housekeepers who do the shopping, bartering with the sellers and haggling about prices on tomatoes, rabbit meat, or frying pans. Clearly almost none of these sellers – nor do most of the buyers – speak English.

I had developed the habit of always going to the same fruit and vegetable stand because the man there always let me try a piece before buying, and also because he was just generally a very jolly fellow! So off I traipsed to my produce man and began selecting peppers when I overheard the man next to me getting extremely incensed at the fact that the vendor was unable to answer his question on the figs he was selling. I tried my best to ignore the burning in my cheeks because clearly this man was my fellow countryman from the US. When I could stand his mad flailing and frothing at the mouth no more, I calmly suggested he perhaps try Spanish seeing as we were, after all, in Spain. He looked at me and coolly explained that he knew no Spanish and why should he learn it since he was speaking English which, according to him, everyone should be able to speak.

Much to the amusement of the vendor, I got into a huge argument with the gentleman right in front of the produce stand. I think it is simply stolid and disrespectful for someone to waltz into a foreign country and expect people to understand them in their own tongue! Yes English is a widely known language across the world and yes many people speak it, but that does not give you the right to assume that it is common knowledge to everyone!
Plus, learning a new language is a beautiful thing, even if you speak with a horrid accent, as unfortunately most of the Americans I know do when speaking one!

Needless to say, the argument ended in my apologizing to my produce vendor for the gall of my fellow countryman and buying more fruit and vegetables than I intended to… The good thing is that I can still show my face at the market and now some of the vendors even recognize me!

But really, why bother going to a foreign country if you are just going to expect everything to be like it is back home? For god’s sake people – stay home then!

14 Responses to “No hablas ingles?”

  1. I agree, mostly about the American attitude, not necessarily the need to know English. It is not always easy to learn the native language quckly (Spanish is among the easiest and even then it’s not an overnight lesson) and yes it is disrespectful to expect the average resident to speak English, but English is the world’s most common language by far and it is the “common currency” of languages (even the French speak it when they’re abroad). Corporations and government agencies, along with cultural institutions such as museums and theaters, should have staff that are at least bilingual. It’s merely convenient that Americans speak English and that it’s the dominant language, but for those groups I mentioned, it’s vital their staff have some ability to communicate in English, not only with Americans but also with people from around the world. Above all, be respectful. With that I can agree wholeheartedly.

  2. Yes! I feel the same way – same as those who never get out and experience the culture of where they are. I’m living in Cairo, in an area called Maadi, where many expats live. I have a friend who’s a personal trainer, another expat here, and she told me more than one of her expat clients actually stated they wished the had Egyptian friends! You’re in Egypt . . I think there are plenty of Egyptian friends to be had. Many of these folks go to the same place every night, speak English and complain about the locals. Drives me mad.

  3. Yeah I can see how that is irritating Abby. It’s the traditional “expat watering hole” mentality… as Jolene mentions in her story, if you refuse to learn the language (thus barring the cultural experience for yourself) and just hang out with people from your home country, why bother going abroad in the first place?!!

  4. Hi, I totally agree on this blog. I do think you need to adjust to the country you live in, not only from a language perspective, but even more from a cultural perspective. I am living in India as an European. Luckily for me English is one of the main languages in India, but in daily live (especially places like markets), you cannot expect people to talk the language you want. Therefore I have started my Hindi lessons as well, so at least I can go around places. And if you don’t want to adjust…why did you become an expat and left your country?

  5. I totally agree with this blog item. I am living in India as an European and luckily for me English is the national language next to Hindi. But that doesn’t mean you don’t adjust to your environment. I think it is not only language that is important, but even more the cultural aspect of the new country. You’re a visitor, never forget this!
    Therefore I also started the Hindi lessons (and yes….that’s really hard…), so at least I can go around, especially to these places where they don’t speak English.

  6. That’s a very good point as well, Thabor. In America for example, even though the official language is obviously English, due to the high number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in states such as Florida or California/Texas/New Mexico, school children are required to learn Spanish early on. It just makes communicating better – obviously! Even if it isn’t your mother tongue, I think it ignorant to refuse a foreign language, after all, it only enriches your life!

  7. Nice read, Jolene! I could discuss this for hours…

    English is generally considered universal, it’s also the official language of the European Union, but… so what? Being a guest in a foreign country, one should make an effort to be respectful of local customs and way of life, and that often includes learning at least a few useful phrases of the local language. Plus it’s just common sense! Your life will be much easier.

    Last year I went to Mexico, speaking very little of the language (since then I’ve taken classes and I’m ready to go back and practice some more 🙂 ). I refused to be a gringa and used only Spanish to communicate. It was easier than I thought and opened many doors. People responded very positively and were very friendly. I even was asked to interpret in a cafe when another person knew not more than “gracias…”

    When you go on a short trip, learn a few words. But when you move for an extended period of time – it should be a no-brainer! That’s part of the cultural immersion.

  8. Right Pola, additionally I feel like people treat you differently when you at least attempt their language. If they see you making the effort, they often help you along by adding a few words or gestures so that you do not stand there fumbling stupidly for words…

  9. Learning a language is not only polite – it is essential for listening to local news, for understanding the culture, for establishing (even minor) relationships. It need not be perfect, but the effort should be made.

    I visited many Latin American countries on business and it made all the difference that at least I understood Spanish – we agreed that they would speak Spanish and I would respond in English (or Spanish if I could).

    And of course, now that I am retired, my residency in Austria depends (partly) on my German proficiency.

    Languages open doors and expand the mind.

  10. Absolutely Jerry – couldn’t agree more!

  11. Thanks again to all of your for reading and commenting on the blog!
    Have a great day,

  12. I totally agree with the language point. It is really important to learn the language of the country u live in. It shows respect to the people of that country plus gives you more options to socialize in that country. I have experienced this very well here in germany. Now i am living here since 10 years and yes have learned the language as well and must say life has become much much better as i can speak and understand german. People’s attitude changes completely once they know u can speak their language …may be not perfect but atleast u r trying …

  13. Absolutely Anagh – language is a vital part of a culture, so it is no wonder that it is important in order to be able to communicate and understand! Thanks for your comment!

  14. Because I lived in France, I speak currently french. Because I live in Germany , I speak (after 3 years) currently german. Spanish is my mother tonge and i can say that in Latinamerica we love when foreigners speak our language. My English is not gut but it isn’t a problem for me 🙂

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