The In-Transit Report

The In-Transit Report: On Language

Sometimes I have to sit back and appreciate the fact that I’m a native English speaker. It’s easy to forget when you’re American, but when anyone travels outside their own country, English is the best second language to have. I’ve met a lot of French and other European travelers here in Korea, and have been reflecting on the difficulty of learning and using English, especially when talking to another person whose native language is not English. I’m constantly amazed by how good some people’s English is, and how the rest try.

I remember meeting a man in Laos who could only speak French, and joined my companions in part because a Belgian with us could speak French and translated a lot for him. I thought it was very brave of him to try traveling with only French; even though Laos was a former colony of France, only a small number of people (mostly the elderly) still speak any French. As brave as it can seem for me to be traveling in Korea and other places without speaking more than a few words of Korean, I’m in the incredibly privileged position of speaking the language that tourism speaks. That fact both intrigues me and irks me.

The world’s multitude of languages are slowly dying out because of the dominance of just a few, the main one being my native language. The number of English words in Japanese, for instance, disturbs me. On the other side, that’s just how languages work – they grow and change. Doesn’t make it any less strange to watch languages die.

This is also reminds me how much I want fluency in another language. I speak barely enough Japanese to get around, but I can’t say I’m at more than a basic conversational level. A big part of me wants to find a job in Japan and work on my Japanese. But another part of me wants to speak the next more important language in the world. Maybe move to China and tackle that again, though I barely remember any of it from the two semesters I took ten years ago! We’ll see where life takes me, and what languages I’ll speak in ten years…

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