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Traveling through Europe
if You only Speak English

Revised March 31, 2008

It is easy to travel through most of western Europe even if you have no foreign language skills. If you can master a few of the words: please, thank you, hello, good-bye, and know something about the country you are going to visit including some of its history and current political leadership, you can generally fumble through Europe without a command of another language. Key to getting by with just English is an understanding that you have arrived in someone else's country without being able to speak their language so that it's essential that you be patient when you can't comprehend what they are saying.

Some countries are easier to visit because so many people speak English:

  • Great Britain
  • Ireland
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • The Netherlands
  • The Vatican

In other countries, you are likely to find people who speak English if you travel to places where many tourists visit:

  • Germany
  • France
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Portugal
  • Austria

Before our first trip, I had three years of elementary school French and two minimally successful years of high school German. Sprinkled into that were a few months of Spanish in sixth grade. So I started listening to tapes and reading language books about 9 months before we left for France. Quickly, I realized that I am a visual learner.....that it was critical that I see the word before I could have command of it as a spoken word. I also realized that I would be able to read things like road signs and billboards but I would have a hard time pulling words out of my brain to have a conversation.

Still, I was comfortable with the basic terms of polite conversation so that I could at least apologize for my inadequate language skills in French. In Italy and Germany, I was able to read basic words but not much more. Dutch road sides looked a bit like German, so I could get a general idea of what they were saying. The signs in Belgium seemed a a lot more difficult.

In most places in France, Italy, Germany and Austria, you will find someone who has some basic English skills. (In Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Ireland, most people speak some English.) So don't let lack of language skills be a reason to stay home. But if you have the time, it is good to develop some basic understanding of the language of the countries you visit. Either French, Spanish or Italian will help you communicate in the "Romance" language countries. If you are visiting Germany or Austria, some basic German is a good idea.

Fortunately, there are many people who speak English in Paris so our first few days of acclimation went very easily. Our next stop was in the heavily touristed Loire Valley where the French campground operators spoke fluent English and had a chap from the U.K. working in the bar.

It wasn't until we went canoeing in the Dordogne that we had our first encounter with someone who spoke as little English as we spoke French. We arrived at a small farmhouse where we planned to rent a canoe and take a trip down the river. Despite our lack of language, we were able to negotiate the transaction and had a wonderful time. That evening, we had dinner at another farmhouse where the owner had a very basic English vocabulary. Again, we were able to order, had a spectacular meal and settled the bill wthout a problem.

We encountered more people who didn't speak English in Italy, but still were able to shop, rent camp spaces and hotels without a problem. And, as in France, the areas that served large tourist populations, Florence, Rome and Venice, had many people who were fluent in English. My husband often retells the story of the charming owner of a sandwich shop in Aosta who spoke no English but quickly realized that my husband wanted a sandwich with the most delectable goodies the owner could recommend. With a broad smile, the owner set out to make each us different sandwiches smothered with tasty condiments and garnishes. It is clear that hunger and pleasure can be communicated without words.

As we traveled from country to country we found that we were changing languages just as we had mastered the basic pleasantries in the other language. We were beginning to feel comfortable with French after we crossed the Italian border. We were doing well with very basic Italian by the time we arrived in Austria. And we had a little German when we reached the Netherlands.

One of the wonderful things you discover is that the there are many ways to communicate without words. Clearly, there is no more effective communication tool than a sincere warm smile. Among my most prized memories of Europe is the time I spent with the owner's aging father at the hotel we visited in Bellagio. He had a lovely family and lived in a charming town. He spoke only Italian and knew I couldn't understand much, but still, he told me about his family and his beautiful grape vines. He said "Ciao" as we left each morning, greeted us with a friendly welcome when we returned and shared stories about his family when I sat in his beautiful arbor. Though I only understood a few of the words in each of his sentences, we shared a fondness that I will treasure always.

A well (and carefully) chosen gesture can also start a conversation. Whether it is offering someone a seat on the subway or observing the amusing behavior of a child, it is possible to communicate without words. During "Fete de la Musique" the gesture was to offer some of the wine at our table to neighboring diners under circumstances where it was comfortable, not forced. Again, add a sincere smile to any gesture and you can enjoy a moment of intimacy with no common language. Still, you should be prepared for confusion if you don't have strong language skills; be patient if someone doesn't understand you and be cautious that whatever you do does not offend.

That said, there are few gestures that can travel across a telephone line. Until you are very comfortable with the language, you should probably practice the dialog of a telephone call before you make a call. Talking on the telephone in a foreign language is perhaps the most intimidating language-related experience you will have because you can not give or get any non-verbal clues. Be sure to have the words for "Please repeat that" and "Could you speak more slowly" on the tip of your tongue.

Similarly, practice numbers whenever you can. I started translating speed signs and license plates as I drove to work so that I could comprehend the answers to questions about prices. It also helps to have a small note pad and pen so that the clerk can answer in writing if you can't comprehend the verbal answer.

Reading Road Signs

Even though they are not our native languages, it is easy to read road signs printed in French and Italian. The length of some German words made street names a bit more difficult in Germany and Austria. And, though the Flemish and Dutch were the best non-native English speakers we met, their street signs were often very difficult to read. All of this points toward: not driving in busy cities and taking a deep breath and relaxing before you try to find a place on a map.

Learning Languages At Home

It was quickly apparent to me that the language skills I had developed would only get me through the most basic conversations. I could ask for very limited instructions and could exchange pleasantries. But it was quite helpful to have language reading skills even if I couldn't speak.

Be cautious about how you approach language lessons for children. As I discussed in the section on traveling with children, it is easy to turn language practice into a chore and cast a negative tone over the entire vacation. Start lightly with songs and fun activities and let the child's interest determine how much practice occurs....don't demand hours of reptition unless your children are enjoying the challenge. But do encourage their learning with language programs geared toward them and by watching cartoons in a foreign language. But do start. Many language teachers start their own children out hearing new terms in two different languages. It seems that an earlier start develops language learning sklls that are hard to acquire later in life. When I ask students who are very fluent in many diverse languages, it is clear that they started young and put a priority on learning languages.

There are many audio cassettes and CDs available to learn the basics. There are also computer programs which will help you practice your vocabulary and pronunciation. As I studied, I realized that I was visually seeing the words in the foreign language before I could speak them. That made it critical for me to read the lessons before I listened to the tapes. If you are an auditory learner, you can probably start out with the tapes and use the book as reinforcement.

Listen to CDs or tapes as you drive to work. Even if you get distracted, it is helpful to hear the words in the background. Follow the audio CDs or tapes up with attempts to read newspapers from the country. I read LeMonde, the Paris newspaper, to develop my French skills with words that are common but not usually found in language lessons. When you finally get the language lessons mastered, start watching movies in the foreign language with subtitles. It will expose you to the language at the pace of real conversations and give you a good feeling about how much of the language you do understand. Don't become too self-conscious if you don't get most of the words....that is part of the learning process. Just continue to expose yourself to the language as often as possible. It will improve both your vocabulary and your pronunciation.

Once I felt comfortable, I made reservations by email in French or Italian. I would first type my email in French or Italian and then, using Google's language tools, type what I had wanted to say in English and translate it to French or Italian, then I would compare the two. Generally, I was close to the Google translation. But beware that the automated translation may not always be correct. I used the Google translation tool to write to an Italian campgrounds for reservations. When I received a reply that indicated they were making a reservation that didn't match my request, I translated my email from Italian back into English. It then became apparent why they had misunderstood my request: Google picked the best word it could find as it translated but it translated word by word not in context and often picked a word that didn't appropriately fit.

When you get to Europe, know that it is natural to have a fear of speaking a foreign language, and that at times you will encounter Europeans who are uncomfortable trying to use their English language skills for fear that they will make a mistake. Again, if you are warm and friendly, they may muster the courage to attempt to give you a response in English. But don't assume that a non-response to your English is rudeness...it is more likely a fear of misspeaking in a foreign tongue.

So spend time driving around town practicing a language. Be sure to master the basics: hello, excuse me, please, thank you, good-bye and goodnight. If you have more, great, but you can get by with English and personality. Finally, remember that you are a guest in their country....and just as we would try to make visitors to America feel welcome, we'd have problems communicating in anything other than English. Be patient with people who are trying to speak as a second language the only language we know.