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Is Foreign Language Fluency Important?

In Culture, Vietnam by Nick6 Comments

Let’s talk about language again.

In high school, your teachers shamed you for not trying hard in Spanish class because “in ten years, it will be impossible to find a job without speaking a second language!”

How will you find a job with your useless medical degree if you don’t know how to order lengua tacos? -Ms. Peterson, 2007

How cruel and unfair your parents were for raising you on just heathen English.

Whatever will you do on your Caribbean cruise when you can’t ask the locals for an ice-cold glass of jugo de naranja on the playa?

And what fresh hell awaits when you’re lost in a foreign city and can’t ask for directions to the closest sex massage parlor?

I’ll tell you…

You will be just fine.

Here’s the deal. English is—and will be for the foreseeable future—THE world language. Not Spanish, not Mandarin, not Klingon. I’m not an Anglophile. I took French, Spanish and German in high school. I love learning new languages. The reaction I get from my Vietnamese pronunciation usually goes something like “Waaaooooo!!!” or “Shit, you can understand me?”

But if you can only learn one language (really well) in your lifetime, make it English. If you are reading this blog, congratulations—you are already ahead of the curve.

There are a few reasons why I advocate learning just the basics when you travel, the first of which is…

Major Tourism Centers Are English-Friendly

I’m aware that the vast majority of people reading this blog aren’t spending their weekends on jungle treks through Brazil or exploring caves in Sub-Saharan Africa. While it might be potentially life-saving to be able to identify poisonous snakes in Portuguese, you’ll never need advanced language skills to find a bathroom in Paris or Saigon.

Yes, even Saigon. Odds are you’re staying in the middle of the city, where everyone from taxi drivers to whores can speak (or knows someone who can speak) English. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to order food and chitchat in Vietnamese. But if I ever get frustrated or need help in a pinch, the English Option is always there.

And this isn’t true for some parts of the world, but Vietnamese (especially younger generations) really like talking to foreigners and practicing their English. English language skills are vital for them to secure high salaries and career advancement.

Simply put, there is no need to learn a foreign language if your destination is a major city.

Learning a New Language Takes A Long Time

Forget what people told you about living in a foreign country and soaking up the language like a sponge. It doesn’t happen. Even being surrounded by native speakers every day doesn’t magically turn you into some international savant. Making any sort of headway requires self-study, a concerted effort to converse with native speakers and a lot of patience.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, but don’t feel obligated to. Don’t stress yourself out in the month leading up to your big trip trying to read Nietzsche in German. Or Nietzsche at all.

Ignorance Is Bliss

Recently—like an AI becoming self-aware, or a baby realizing its feet are actually attached to its body—I’ve had a sort of awakening in terms of understanding Vietnamese. I haven’t done anything differently. In fact, I haven’t studied the language in months.

But for some reason I can pick up bits and pieces of conversations much better than before. Sadly, with understanding comes a loss of the exotic. There’s something magical about walking through a crowded market and not being able to pick out a single word from the din around you. This will sound egotistical, but you feel like the world revolves around you. Everyone else is just an extra. It’s just you and your surroundings.

When you can speak the language, the signal separates from the noise, but sometimes I don’t give a shit about the signal. I feel like one of the last pioneers settling the American Frontier before it was officially closed—slowly, every exotic dish or piece of fruit or alley is a known factor. You already know what lies over the next hill; it’s your third-favorite rice restaurant, and they know you by name as “very handsome Westerner.”

I entered my quarterly tourist visa renewal gauntlet a few days ago, and decided to use the same guy I visited back in April. The visa laws changed back in January, meaning I pay double the price to extend my visa as I did last summer. It’s a pain in the ass.

In April I paid him $130 for a three-month extension. This included the supposed “hassle” of changing the code on my tourist visa. It was also 40 bucks cheaper than I was quoted elsewhere.

Anyway, a few days ago I was sitting in his office again. He called his “guy” at the embassy to get a price. Remember, Vietnamese food and numbers are my shit. I can count and eat all day.

How to tell time without getting your phone stolen

Just in case both of your phones are dead, it’s always the same time everywhere in Asia.

He says (in Vietnamese) “How much? 110? Thank you.”

If you are confused, that means my visa will cost him $110 at the very most, but more than likely that’s the price he was supposed to give me. He gives me one of those fake smiles and rubs his hair back like most people do before they feed you a shovelful of bull shit.

“Looks like maybe $200.”

Maybe, as in that’s the number that he thought he could get away with charging me.

“I understand Vietnamese. You said $110 on the phone.”

“Oh…well that’s my price.”

“OK, bye.”

I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad information to have, or that I would have believed him even if I didn’t speak Vietnamese. But when you speak the local language, you can’t even ignore when people lie to your face.

(By the way, I did end up paying $190 for a visa extension at another agency, but he was still lying to me. At this rate I might have to do a green card wedding.)

Learn Enough, and Nothing More

There’s definitely a balance to strike when learning a new language. On one end of the spectrum you have complete ignorance—everything is unknown and exotic, but you can feel isolated. On the opposite side you have fluency—nothing is surprising or strange, but you can at least feel some level of comfort in a new place.

It’s ultimately up to you how much of a language you should master. For me, learning food, drinks and slang were paramount. I still don’t know how to say “good morning,” but I can call someone a motherfucker if they run into me and I can crack stupid little jokes every now and then.

You might not give two shits about foreign languages. You’re going to order a “coffee AmeriCANo” and strut your Nikes down Pham Ngu Lao Street like nobody’s business. Or maybe you will have a panic attack if you can’t discuss Keynesian Economics with the little girl selling fruit on the corner.

Either way, you shouldn’t learn more than you need to, because the language barrier that we were taught to fear in high school is really the key to finding your ideal comfort level abroad—some like to blend in, others like to live among but apart.


    1. Author

      There’s this really sweet gal I know, you can barely see her Adam’s apple.

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