When asked, the stereotypical American traveler will tell you that learning the language of whatever European country you’ve decided to travel to is unnecessary.
“Everyone speaks English,” they say. These travelers are also the ones that say every native speaker in every place they’ve ever visited (especially in Paris), are extremely rude. This is devastating, especially considering how English often borrows from other languages. The study of foreign languages and cultures is arguably essential and necessary for a well-rounded education. A background with a foreign language can make travel or international business transactions easier, and it raises the standard of American education closer to its European counterpart, where foreign languages are taught as young as five years old.
I distinctly remember a spring break trip to Europe. It was with a school group, in the middle of the Tuscan countryside in a hotel that rarely saw such large groups. That night, the tour guide told us that it was our choice if a group wanted to walk to get pizza or another wanted to eat at the hotel restaurant. The chaperone (my high school french teacher), the tour guide, and the rest of the students decided that they wanted to walk to a small pizzeria about a mile away for dinner. That day, we had walked the entire city of Florence and climbed one of the steepest hills you have ever encountered in your life in order to see a view of the city.
I did not want to walk a mile for pizza. The hotel restaurant was right there and we could eat where we wanted. I asked if I could eat at the restaurant, even though no one else would come with me. In retrospect, it was probably unwise of my teacher to let a minor eat alone in a restaurant in a foreign country, but hindsight is always 20/20. Before the trip, my teacher had taught everyone common phrases in Italian, to be polite to native speakers and in case we encountered someone who didn’t speak English. I was grateful for my french teacher that night.
Once my group leaves, I go to the restaurant. My waitress is an italian woman in her sixties. She has dark, short hair, tan skin, and a warm smile. She hands me a menu and I look it over for a few minutes. I stare at the menu like it’s full of hieroglyphs. I decide to go with whatever had been chosen for “the menu of the day.” My waitress returns, and I tell her I want the menu of the day, per favore.
She shakes her head and mutters negatives in Italian. Oh no, what did I do?
“You have to pick,” she explains in Italian (by some miracle of my French and limited Spanish, I understand her completely). She starts reading the entire menu to me, and somehow, it makes sense. I recognize words in Spanish or French and start praying they mean the same in Italian. I hear, “pesto,” and something like, “beef” and I know what I want.
The waitress and I get through dinner with smiles and nods. The food is fabulous. She even helps me pronounce a word. Google translate is my savior. I pay and leave.
I think about that dinner often. I think about how things could have gone if I hadn’t taken language classes, and while I’m grateful I learned what I could, I couldn’t help but wish I’d had more.
Perhaps Europeans aren’t rude. Perhaps the values of American education are misplaced.