Do we have a responsibility to learn new languages before travelling?

With the Rugby World Cup and the summer Olympics of 2020 looming ahead for Japan, the country is trying to make their maps easier to understand for foreign visitors by changing confusing pictograms. For example, instead of a giant X, representing two police batons crossing each other, a police station will now be indicated by a symbol of a saluting policeman. Which makes a lot more sense, if you ask me. However, the proposal to change the swastika for a three-storey pagoda to identify temples has sparked a backlash.

The swastika is the symbol that, in a slightly different form, has been used by the Nazis, and many tourists immediately associate it with the Nazi symbol. However, the swastika has centuries-old associations with Japanese Buddhism and has been used as a symbol of good fortune in many cultures in the world (including Europe and the US). Is it our responsibility as tourists to learn about the language and culture of the country we’re visiting, thereby avoiding to mistake an ancient symbol for an adopted, much more offensive one? Or should countries adapt to foreigners, for instance by getting rid of confusing aspects of their culture, as Japan is planning to do?

Growing up in tiny country with a language nobody speaks outside of our borders – except for half of Belgium and a few islands in the Caribbean – being able to speak another language is absolutely necessary when going on holiday. It’s thought of as very normal that everyone in the Netherlands speaks English to some degree, usually very well.  Research has shown that English is the second language of 85 per cent of Europeans. When you encounter the language from a young age via TV programmes, music and films, and it’s an obligatory subject at secondary school, it’s no wonder that many Europeans easily switch between their mother tongue and English.

In stark contrast to this are the 78 per cent of Britons who admit to not being able to speak a foreign language “to a high standard” in a survey done by the British Council. Personally, I don’t think that’s surprising. As a result of colonisation, and further supported by the emergence of the United States as an international superpower, English remains one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It’s not that essential to speak a foreign language – especially when many inhabitants of your holiday destination will answer in English when you ask them the way to the Eiffel tower/the Colosseum/[insert monument] in a broken accent.

A British Academy report talked about a “vicious circle of monolingualism,” but change is on its way. In the last few years all primary school children have to learn a foreign language from the age of seven. I would say that this is a really good thing. The benefits of learning a foreign language go beyond being able to order ‘zwei Bier’ on a terrace in Berlin. It develops the ability to multi-task, improves memory and decision-making, as well as delaying eventual signs of Alzheimer and dementia. But most importantly, language makes you more open to different cultures. Since language is a doorway to a particular culture, speaking this language will enable you to have a broader understanding of that culture. Being multilingual gives you the advantage of seeing the world from different vantage points, a flexibility and appreciation of other ways of doings things that’s very valuable.

Obviously, no one expects you to be completely fluent in a language when you’re only going on holiday for two weeks. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask to read a tourist guide before going and learning some basic phrases. Being able to say ‘Bonjour’, ‘Merci’ and ‘Ça va?’ makes a world of a difference. Not only will you feel less like a tourist when you can confidently order ‘un café’ from a hot French waiter, it will also give the impression that you’re interested in the culture of the country you’re visiting. You’re not just there to take pictures of incredible temples, you’ll also know that the sign indicating that temple on your map is something very different from the symbol used by the Nazis.

[Aike Jansen]


  1. The new translation apps & devices are soon going to make learning languages a thing of the past for most people. They’ve really come a long way since babel fish.

  2. I think we should try to learn a few words and not expect to rely on English wherever we go (I’m French so I certainly don’t expect people to speak French in Asia). It’s fun too though it can be complicated. I think people now think that technology is going to help them with translation apps and such; it helps but learning a bit of the language of the country you visit is intellectually challenging and also polite.
    Talking about the japanese manji I do hope the japanese will keep it, I don’t know who it shocks aparts uncultured tourists who maybe should have stayed at home! What will they have to change next? Why lose a part of asian culture when there are other important things Japan might think about changing like eating whale…

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