Monday, October 15, 2012

The language barrier

I was surprised to see
some signs in Chinese in Madrid.
Many people are intimidated by the Chinese language, that they won't be able to travel independently in China because they don't know Mandarin. They go to Europe instead, thinking they'll more easily find people who speak the English language.

I just got back from a week in Madrid. If I hadn't remembered basic phrases from my high school and college Spanish classes of 50 years ago, I'd probably still be wandering around the Madrid airport trying to find the exit.

For a major international city and world capital, I found the level of English to be appallingly lacking. It took me four trips before I figured out how to buy a subway ticket on my own -- the instructions were only in Spanish. I needed help after arriving at the airport, but no one at the two information booths I stopped at spoke English. My luggage didn't arrive when I did; the clerk at baggage services did have some English but getting the paperwork done was still a challenge. I was, therefore, quite surprised when my luggage was delivered to my hotel the next day.

My hotel was close to a Madrid tourist office. When I went there for assistance, again, no one spoke English. Since the hotel manager's English was limited to "Let me see your passport," I found the concierges at the nearby Westin Palace hotel to have the best spoken English. Even though I wasn't staying there, the concierge staff was quite helpful in getting me sorted out.

Even stopping people on the streets wasn't as useful in Madrid as it is in Beijing. More than once, I was told "I don't speak English," even though I was speaking Spanish. Of course, I speak Mexican Spanish while they speak Castillian; the words are the same, though the pronunciations are different in many cases.

I contrast this with Beijing where many people speak English, and even stop you on the street for an opportunity to practice English with you. Beijing's subways and buses have digital reader boards and make oral announcements in both Chinese and English. I never rode a bus in Madrid, but all subway announcements were in Spanish only.

One afternoon I took a tour to Toledo. The tour was billed for English speakers only, but the guide spent 75 percent of her time giving details in Spanish, even though there were no native Spanish speakers on board. I picked up enough of her Spanish spiel to know that what she was saying in Spanish was more detailed than her English translations.

I could go on and on about English in Madrid, you get the idea. You're in a foreign country, you need to speak their language to get along. I understand that, but a little help from the natives would be nice. After all, I am spending money in their country, money that could be easily spent in a country, like China, that is more user-friendly to non-native speakers.

Are you going to China?

If a trip to China is in your future, check out Cheryl's China for tips and recommendations on travel in the Middle Kingdom. Also feel free to email me if you have any questions.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Well it's not always the case. I'm Asian and I can blend in like a local in China, but I don't speak Mandarin nor can read the characters.

In my situation, surviving in Beijing is not easy. It was even way more difficult before 2008 Olympics. Barely any English sign, and finding people who can speak English is not that easy. Especially if you are far away from tourist & expat areas.
My trips to China often ended up being a picture matching game between the guidebook and the street signs.

On the other hand, despite not understanding Spanish, I can read and pronounce Spanish pretty well. The time spent trying to get somewhere without any aid is usually shorter.

I'm not saying you're wrong, just that your experience may not apply universally.