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When I first started my history degree I dreamed of how one day, when I was a sophisticated third year historian, I would write a profound dissertation that would gain insight into a significant aspect of the world’s past. My title would be something hard-hitting and gritty like ‘The British Empire, and its trail of destruction’ or ‘9/11- Will the world ever be the same again?’ I would be standing on the fore-front of today’s global political issues and tracing their harrowing stories back in time. However, when it came down to it, I never quite got my insightful title. No, instead I ended up doing something so irrelevant to today’s society that it was about as hard-hitting as an episode of Pingu. I managed to stumble into specialising in the history of British travel to Italy between 1550 and 1950, and as a result my dissertation title ended up being ‘The Evolution of the Italian Phrasebook and its Impact on British Travel to Italy’. Instead of exposing harrowing tales of a fascist state, I got to root through the British library and browse phrasebooks littered with hilarious phrases such as ‘I wish you wouldn’t put lather in my mouth’.
Despite my title being less dramatic, it was still a riveting exploration of the past. Investigating how people used the Italian language in the nineteenth century and the tribulations they faced through a lack of understanding got me thinking about how we use language today when we travel. I myself have not been exempt from problems which have arisen due to a lack of proficiency in a foreign language. Whilst at the Argentinean/Bolivian border, in the midst of the Swine flu scare, I naively answered ‘Si’ to the various questions posed by a scary looking man in a white suit and face mask. Inadvertently I had told the man that I had flu symptoms and was only stopped from being pulled off the bus for quarantine by my friend leaping in with ‘No! No!’. Whilst hitchhiking through Germany, language again caused me problems as I scratched around for conversation with a polish lorry driver. Hand signals and suggestive noises only filled the gap to a certain extent. In the end he filled the awkward silence with some polish techno- I didn’t know which was worse.
But how much of a country’s language do we need to know in order to travel through it? Some claim that there is no need to know any language apart from English in order to travel around the world but I can’t help but think that common manners and the learning of simple phrases such as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ can do no harm. In Thailand, the influx of backpackers that have taken advantage of the low prices and copious drinks at the full moon party have meant that much of the Thai tourist industry has learnt English in order to adapt. However a simple ‘Khob Khun Kha’ to say thank you to a Thai waiter demonstrates to them that you are not just another ignorant thrill seeker. While the English language imperialistically creeps round the world, it is down to the traveller to make sure that other countries know that we are not all ok with western culture taking over the world. Like the travellers to Italy in the nineteenth century, travellers today can use language to access part of the culture of a country that would otherwise remain closed. Talking to people opens a new door in how we see and understand a country. So, my advice would be to invest in a few phrasebooks in order to not only avoid sticky and awkward situations but also allow yourself to talk to the real people that inhabit the country you are coasting through.