In Southeast Asia, English is king. Obviously, each country speaks their respective native language(s) and a traveler should definitely take time to learn the basics like “hello” and “thank you”, but English can now be found just about everywhere, whether it be written or verbal. I realize this is exaggerated along the popular traveler routes, but if you look closer, it’s influence cannot be denied. English is now taught in the primary schools and many times, parents will default to their children when talking to an English speaking tourist. After noticing this, my thoughts were confirmed during a conversation with an American teaching English in Thailand. He said that the countries of Southeast Asia recently started a program to teach all students English, which will become the language spoken between governments at some point in the near future. Bottom line, even developing countries such as Laos have realized the importance of a common language in today’s world and are moving towards a bilingual future.
Being from the U.S. we have the luxury of speaking the world’s most commonly shared language already. On top of this or perhaps because of this, foreign languages are not heavily emphasized in school. I’m a perfect example of a product of the American school system. Going through high school, I met only the minimum university language requirements for admission without much further thought and without anything close to mastery of the language. I did this all while going to a California high school where the most common first language was not English at all, but in fact Spanish. Even during my my first travel experience, six weeks studying abroad in Barcelona, I put more priority on seeing the city sites and going out with my newfound American friends than actually learning Spanish. Of course I was always able to get by and even in future travels, a few short trips to Central America, my inability to speak Spanish never became a huge issue. I would rely on friends who spoke more Spanish than myself or my very limited vocabulary to get the general idea of my needs across. However, a large part of conversation was going right over my head.
It wasn’t until long after returning home that I realized my error of just how valuable a second language can be. While it was never a “problem” per say, I was missing out on a whole array of interactions and conversations, all due to a language barrier that I had failed to bring down. Yes, I could order a meal, ask the price, or find out where the bathroom was in Spanish, but I couldn’t learn about who these people really were along with their everyday joys and problems; I couldn’t meet them on an individual level and get an idea of their personalities. Sometimes, you get lucky and meet someone that is bilingual and an English speaker, making this possible, but that means the level of interaction between the local population is out of your hands. Southeast Asia has taken things into their own hands, making a decision to connect themselves to the rest of the world, so why shouldn’t I? Improving my novice Spanish to a respectable level is at the top of my priority list.