Tuesday, 14 December 2004

The Amazing Race 6, Episode 5

Gorée Island (Senegal) - Berlin (Germany)

I mentioned last week that of 18 contestants on The Amazing Race in Senegal, none appeared to be making any attempt to speak French. That continued this week, which is a litle bit surprising, considering that French is the second most widely studied foreign language (after Spanish) in the USA.

But which languages are taught in schools and colleges has little to do with their value to travellers. Outside Québec, French has limited value for travellers within North America, even just across the border in northern New York or New England. In the Caribbean, there are more speakers of various Creoles (mostly unintelligible, for the most part, to speakers of French as a foreign language, and only partially intelligible to native French speakers) than of French.

But what about further afield, or if you are planning a trip to a diversity of places, like the contestants on The Amazing Race? A while back, a reader of my columns wrote me, “What do you consider to be the most useful languages for a world traveller to know?” Here’s what I told them:

Certainly the most useful language to know, if you want to travel to a wide variety of countries around the world, is English. There are few large cities or heavily-touristed places anywhere in the world where you can’t find some people who speak at least a little basic tourist English.

There are places where no one speaks any language except the local one(s), but it’s possible to communicate basic travel needs (“food”, “toilet”, “place to sleep”, “transport to the place I’m pointing to on this map”) with no mutual language at all. A well-designed set of pictographs helps — the best are the laminated Kwikpoint cards, and I’d rate them an absolute “must”, if they are allowed, for contestants on The Amazing Race.

My first trip outside North America started with a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Shanghai. Neither I nor my travelling companion recognized a single character or understood a single word of any Chinese language or dialect. We had nightmares before we left that we’d never find our way out of the airport, but it all worked out, as it usually does — even though the only words I learned to say (badly) were “Please” and “Thank you”, and the only characters I learned to distinguish were the ones for “Men” and “Women” on the doors of the toilets. I’m headed back to China (and the Philippines) at the end of this week, with happy anticipation — still not knowing any Chinese, although I wish I did.

You’ll get more out a visit if you know a language understood by at least some of the locals, but not knowing any locally-understood language shouldn’t stand in the way of going wherever you really want to go.

That said, the most useful languages other than English for world
travellers are those that are:

  1. used by at least a significant subset of people
  2. throughout a large area
  3. where English isn’t widely used.

Depending on the region(s) of the world in which you are most interested (and leaving aside the varying difficulty of learning different languages), that would include, more or less in order:

  • Spanish (useful throughout Latin America — even in Brazil spoken Spanish is widely understood, and knowledge of written Spanish is adequate for understanding much written Portuguese)
  • Mandarin (useful throughout East Asia, and to a lesser degree in many other places; outside China more overseas Chinese speak Cantonese, but the numbers are shifting in favor of Mandarin, and most overseas Chinese I’ve asked recommend learning Mandarin)
  • Russian (English is not widely spoken in the former USSR, and some people speak Russian in surprisingly many other places)
  • Arabic (used as a second language by Muslim intellectuals throughout the world, even where Arabic isn’t the primary language)

Other less widely useful possibilities (either less widely spoken, or spoken in places where English is more common) would include:

  • French (mainly useful in western, central, and northern Africa, but losing ground rapidly to English in many areas)
  • Hindi or Urdu (useful in a large region of South Asia, but in most of that region it’s relatively easy to get around in English)
  • Swahili (ditto in eastern Africa)
  • German (the lingua franca and most common second language of much of central Europe, having largely displaced Russian in that role over the last decade)

I’d welcome readers’ comments and suggestions on this list.

(I’ll be travelling until January 11th, and not necessarily staying in hotels with cable or satellite television to get “The Amazing Race”, so don’t count on any commentary on the race until I get back.)

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 14 December 2004, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I clearly heard Hera speaking fairly clear French during episode 4... Wish I hadn't deleted it from my Tivo so I could go back and check.

Posted by: Mike G., 15 December 2004, 12:02 (12:02 PM)

I really enjoy your website. I wanted to encourage you to listen to the additional video footage for episode 5 entitled "Don and Mary Jane's Parting Words".
When Don starts to talk, he says the main thing he learned was how much safer the world is than he thought. Everyone they encountered was courteous and helpful.
I thought this spoke well for your own commentaries about world traveling.
Thank you!

Posted by: Sarah - AR fan, 16 December 2004, 12:51 (12:51 PM)

That same episode had several very disturbing and disgusting comments by Kendra (sp?).

Paraphrasing perhaps:
"This is a ghetto" (d'oh, is that because everyone is black?)
With the taxi driver listening: "This city is disgusting. Why do these people keep breeding!!"

What an odious racist attitude to poverty. "These people" breed becuase labor is their ONLY asset in this world. They have their kids as their only hope of survival in old age, and income at present. They don't have 401ks! What barbarians!
Perhaps she should also consider the Catholic Church's role in the suppression of family planning information across the whole african continent.

What an ignorant, racist, small minded bitch!

Posted by: andreas, 16 December 2004, 17:50 ( 5:50 PM)

I agree, Kendra is looking like an ignorant brat. Kris and Jon are the exact opposites.

In the Insider videos at the CBS web site for the previous episode (the one where they arrive in Senegal), Don suggests that he knows at least some French. He was explaining how he learned the location of the grave they had to find. I think that there was a cemetery guard who didn't speak French, but spoke another language -- I assume Wolof (http://www.wolofonline.com) -- and Don's taxi driver translated from the cemetery guard's language into French, which Don seemed to understand.

Posted by: Anonymous, 17 December 2004, 02:40 ( 2:40 AM)

Yea, what she said (Kendra), wasnt very good at all, and I thought it was soo rude, but Freddy is really sweet and nice, and I think they make a good team!
I hope the make it all the way.
(cheering for: 1. Freddy and Kendra 2. Hayden and Aaaron 3. Adam and Rebecca

Posted by: Holly, 17 December 2004, 14:35 ( 2:35 PM)

It's funny how lack of use of languages and words that sounded racist was adressed but what about spousal abuse? I was appalled how the couple who came in second place acted. She was crying and he is yelling at her about picking up his pack and making them come in second. Then he proceeds to nudge, hit, elbow or whatever other word that describes what he did to her, Didn't anyone else find this disturbing? He is always verbally and mentally abusive. There were several times while they were arguing, he raised his hand at her as if he was going to strike her. You can tell he wanted to. I loved the fact that our host told him to talk to his wife but on the other hand, maybe he should have told him to do this after he's calmed down. I just hope that when they see how they acted on this show that their eyes are opened and they get some counseling. He needs anger management classes and she needs to learn that this IS "abuse" and maybe she should separate from him until he can learn to control his anger.

Posted by: Melanie, 19 December 2004, 02:30 ( 2:30 AM)

I agree Don & MJ are lost in downtown Berlin to look the destroyed church.

Posted by: Claude, 20 December 2004, 00:10 (12:10 AM)

In response to Melanie's comment: Yes, I found Jonathan's treatment of Victoria abusive and objectionable. It has been widely discussed and criticized elsewhere, and didn't seem necessarily to be related to travel, whihc I have tried to keep as the focus of my commentary. (Although, as I've said here and elsewhere, travel can bring out pre-existing problems in relationships between travellers, and maintaining relationships sometimes requires extra effort while travelling.)

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 19 January 2005, 21:20 ( 9:20 PM)

Your book is one of my favorites, but I think you ought to change what you say about languages. Travel to a place for just a few weeks, and it's probably true (as you say) that you won't likely learn much of any language you didn't already know before you leave.

But the whole point of travel is to broaden your horrizons. If you really 'click' with the people in or from any part of the world, I recommend you learn THAT language, no matter how many or few people speak it. Instead of expending lots of effort to learn two or three words in lots of languages, why not focus on one and truly ACQUIRE it? You'll come to see the 'exotic' destination whose language (and thus culture) you've learned as your second home, and it's not as hard as you think if you integrate your studies into your life.

First, find a native speaker willing to help you. This person need not be a teacher; in fact, a friend, lover or family member would be ideal. Tell them you want to go where they came from and not have to rely on interpreters. Most people are proud of their language and flattered by a sincere desire to learn. Even if you mangle it, even if you learn "only" enough to get around on a two-week trip -- you will have fond friends forever.

My own experience learning Vietnamese in the 1990s shows what to do and what not to do. I took formal tuition in spoken Vietnamese in college, but learned way more in a three week homestay near Ho Chi Minh City than I had throughout the previous twelve months. The exotic toneal system proved tricky until I realized focusing on it was keeping me from just doing my life day by day. When I relaxed into the language and culture (enjoying their music, laughing at their jokes and eating their food) the difficulty just melted away. It never WENT away, but in the end it stopped being a big deal. On nine later trips to SE Asia (none longer than a few months and none primarily for education) I came by a remarkable bit of Vietnamese with a little help from the friends I made along the way -- enough to easily learn more even after graduating from school. It was locally understood language, pronounced the way people around town actually pronounced it (as opposed to how the college's curriculum said it had to be taught), presented naturally as a part of activities I would have been doing anyway.

You can see the problem with planning to learn a little of some language just because it's widely spoken in a given region. Planning a quick trip someplace is no guarantee you'll like it enough to commit to the discipline it will take to do the ordinary things you're doing anyway in a strange language. Decide if you're ready to let go of your monolingual view of the world, then learn the language of the people you want to get closest to. Don't worry if there's no class or books available before you leave, and don't plan on being able to talk to the whole world. If you just want to be a tourist, stick with English. If you'd like to be a VISITOR, then really learn one language in its local context. You'll be glad you did.

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 23 November 2005, 21:32 ( 9:32 PM)
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