British Holidays Lost in Translation

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Another day, another study highlighting Britain’s national lack of foreign language skills. This time, it’s new research from the British Council . According to the survey (the results of which should surprise absolutely no one), too many British holidays abroad are lost in translation.

Some interesting statistics:

  • 78% of British people described themselves as unable to “speak a foreign language to a high standard.”
  • 40% have been embarrassed while on holiday due to their inability to communicate.
  • 22% have been ripped off.
  • A whopping 18% of those polled had eaten unknown food items while on holiday because they could not read the menu.

So, if you don’t speak the language, how do you communicate with the locals? A slight majority of those surveyed, 53%, just point to what they want. There’s a chance you could come across as rude, but at least it gets the point across. However, 17% of respondents actually admitted to speaking English in a fake foreign accent. Look, it’s normal to get flustered when you’re having difficulty communicating, but putting on a B-movie accent will not in fact make it easier for people who don’t speak English to understand what you are saying.

This isn’t just a British problem- Americans are also notorious for not being able to speak local languages. Personal confession time: I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing my father “make up” words in Spanish on a trip to Mexico (sorry Dad, you cannot convert English to Spanish by adding an “el” and an “-o” to everything!), and my wonderful husband can’t seem to stop himself from doing the fake accent thing.

English is so widely spoken that all too often, those of us who grew up speaking it don’t see a need to learn to speak anything else — at least not until a plate full of foreign mystery meat appears in front of us! However, not being able to speak at least a little bit of the local language limits our vacation and travel opportunities: 18% of those surveyed by the British Council “avoided sampling the local culture” while on holiday, and 21% stuck to familiar fast food or British restaurants to avoid the aforementioned “mystery meat” scenario. But if you aren’t experiencing the local culture and you’re eating at McDonald’s just like you would at home, then why travel at all?

What’s the solution? If you don’t have time to learn some of the language before you go on holiday, a translation app for your smart phone can help you quickly look up words and phrases, or even translate sentences for you. However, if the application uses data you should check your cell phone plan to make sure that it will work in the country you’re traveling to and that it won’t leave you bankrupt when you get home! Also, be aware that these apps are less than perfect- if your trip is business-related or otherwise “high-stakes,” you probably need the services of a reliable interpreter.