Parla Inglese?

When I’m in Italy, it makes my heart soar with happiness when someone approaches me in the street or gets me on the phone at work and asks me politely in English accented Italian, “lei parla inglese?”

“Why, yes I do speak English! What can I help you with?” I say with a broad smile, in English, of course.

Is it because living, thinking, working and speaking in Italian day in and day out is so taxing on me that I’m happy someone wants me to lapse back into English? Not really. Is it because I become overwhelmed with fellow-feeling for this other traveler or client who obviously speaks my native language? Not really. (Although I have been known to do cartwheels when I meet fellow Canadians in Siena). It’s because they asked, and didn’t just assume that I magically speak English.

“But Sarah!” you rebut. “You do speak English. It’s your first language. You’re Canadian. Why would you be offended when people assume you speak English. They’re right!!!”

Yes, they are. And so are you. But the thing is, when I’m in Italy, 99% of non-Italians think I’m Italian. Some even ask where an Italian like me learned to speak English so well, with just a hint of an accent. Puh-leeze! But when people  approach me and immediately start asking for advice or directions in English, I get a little annoyed for the Italians. Because it’s this little thing that reveals the mindset of many North Americans or Brits – that because English is becoming increasingly popular, EVERYONE should and can speak it. This would also mean that there’s no reason for native English speakers to learn a second language….

You’re talking to a language buff here, so I’ll never agree with you on that one. I have a huge interest in languages – not just my native one – and when I travel, I think it’s SO important to learn a few words in the local language. It shows the people whose country, whose home you’re visiting, that you’re not some imperialistic force, hoping to spread the supremacy of English to each corner of the earth. Or, think of it this way: if you know a few words in the local language, you’re less likely to be duped, swindled or confused during your visit.

Five years ago, my extended family and I visited Germany and Austria. Knowing that I was the language lover of the family, I was provided with a Rick Steves German Phrasebook, and was given the task of official translator / menu decoder for the duration of the trip, for all 9 of us. As you can see, I took my job very seriously.

Sprechen sie deutsch?!

And the Germans and Austrians that I encountered were very pleased that I had taken some time in the airport and on the flight over to learn a bit about their language and pronunciation! Most Europeans, except possibly the French, are very happy to help you even if you’re butchering their language. They applaud your effort, may try to correct you, and happily offer a helping hand with whatever your query might be about.

So break out that high school French or Spanish that you’ve got collecting dust in the recesses of your brain, grab a Swedish or Italian phrasebook and hit the road. Learn to greet the Croatians with a friendly “Bok!”, thank the Germans with, “Danke”,  ask the Spanish for something with “por favor” and say your goodbyes to the Italians with “arrivederci!”

A little effort goes a long way.

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