Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Luck of the English

As I was walking around Budapest this September it struck me that I had absolutely no need to learn any Hungarian. Now according to friends it is a very difficult language to learn but that wasn’t a worry for me. As an English speaker I could basically travel anywhere in the city, well off the worn tourist areas, and communicate. On the surface I realized this was a great benefit to being an Anglophone but deep down I continue to find this troubling. Part of the charm and excitement of traveling is experiencing a whole culture, of which language plays a huge part. If we take that away, we begin to erode part of what makes each region of the world unique. Yes, it’s easier to buy that train ticket when I don’t have to pull out my English-“fill in language here” dictionary but I miss the challenge of that communication. I remember my first time in Europe in 1992 in the former Czechoslovakia. Other than some key words - pivo (beer), cukrarna (bakery), the always important dekuji (thank you) and dobry den (hello) - I knew very little Czech. In the city of Olomouc though, three years out of communism, that was really my only option, short of attempting Russian. Despite the differences in our languages and the lack of English, I got by fine and it enhanced my experience. My friend knew enough Czech to get us by but there were moments when I had to figure out how to communicate without his help or the security blanket of English. Frankly, I was on their turf and felt it was my obligation to at least know some Czech or to have fun not knowing it like the day we ordered lunch and drinks having no clue what was coming our way. That same feeling came back in Hungary and I felt that I was in their home and should make the effort to learn some Hungarian. Problem was I didn’t have to and thus, I didn’t.


Jay said...

As someone who's been in his fair share of countries where English could get you buy and others where it absolutely couldn't, this post hit home with me. I totally feel your dilemma, as you miss some of the excitement/challenge of using English to survive in a foreign land, and the whole appeal of traveling abroad loses some of its luster. I guess the solution is to go to more places well off the beaten path and had no part of the former British empire. :)

Digluesse said...

Jay that's a totally fair comment. Having spent a lot of time in eastern Europe, English is quite prevalent but in less busy locales like Slovakia you see it but there's a greater need to have some local skill. Hungary was surprising because of how much English - even more than in Prague. Going further afield would likely bring that thrill back.