There is a bit of rueful irony to the term lingua franca. Connoting a common language people of different linguistic backgrounds speak in order to communicate, the term literally means "Frankish language," and came to mean a patois of Italian, Spanish, French, Arabic and Greek that acted as a common trade language among sailors and merchants in Mediterranean ports. There was a time when it was the only way for a Spaniard to get his point across to a Cairene, and eventually took on the definition of a language everybody knew. And the irony? Today, English is the undisputed language of the world. So much for "franca."
I was in Antwerp recently, and was floored by my hosts. They switched from Flemish to English like it was hopscotch. In Thailand, I was in a mall where so many marquees were in English I could get away with forgetting I was in Bangkok. Driving though Japan, road signs were in English.
Don't get me wrong; it is enormously reassuring that I will be understood just about wherever I go. I may have to fine-tune things a little -- in Japanese, a hamburger is a "ham-ba-ga"-- but the fact remains that you, me, and every other Anglophone have to go pretty far a-field to go somewhere where English, even in a most basic form, isn't spoken. And it's cute for people to come up and beg brushing up on their skills with a native speaker. But I had to wonder if there wasn't just a little bit of arrogance on my part in that wherever I go, whatever country I visit, I don't even try to pick up the language, before, during or after. I just assume they are going to know mine.
I also how wondered if something isn't lost. On a recent trip to the Riviera Maya, almost everywhere I went, English was used. One of the charms of Mexico is its Spanish heritage, and there was a certain irony going all the way to Playa del Carmen just to run into more English-speakers. Where was Mexico?
Now, let me clarify. I am not advocating taking yearlong language course for a weeklong trip. But I will say, when I was in Wales -- whose language I am convinced is difficult on purpose -- I spent a little time in the back of my guidebook going over a few phrases. It sounds (and sounded) totally hokey, but the Welsh took it as a compliment. Wales is 100 percent English-speaking, but only 50 percent Welsh speaking. For someone who did not need to learn one word of the language, the fact that I did went a long way. Do not underestimate the power of a little cultural sensitivity. It shows you care, and people pick up on that.
I pulled the same trick in Japan, and the natives were outright amazed. I wasn't fluent by any stretch of the imagination, but I knew enough to ask basic "what is" or "where is" questions -- and understand the reply. The Japanese are well aware that their language, related to no other on the planet, is extremely difficult for foreigners to learn, so when a foreigner does just that, it's a real show stopper. And the funny thing about Japanese is that few other languages are such efficient windows into the mindset of its people; know the language and you know the people. The downside of this was that because I knew a few words, the Japanese thought I knew all of them, and I was hit with a deluge of syllables I knew no more than I do the landscape of Mars. The magic was dispelled, but it still showed that I took the time.
Picking up a new language also shows you hunger for something more than something prefabricated. Let's face it: We all know "touristy" when we see it, and bemoan when we find ourselves stuck in a morass of it. It smacks of cynicism and inauthenticity to have another culture presented to you through a preconceived lens. If it means getting a better experience, and leaving a better impression, I have no problem with picking up a DVD or two to brush up on my Spanish, or Greek, or Hebrew. I may never use those languages again, but personally, when I travel, I mean business -- mainly because it is my business. If I'm not showing respect for my hosts, how will those in my charge?
Nelson Mandela said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart," to which can be added the wise words of psycholinguist Frank Smith, who noted, "One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way." Pardon the pun, but true words.