The Privilege of Speaking English: My Experience Traveling within Asia

krabi-thailand-sunsetLittle did I know my walk down to the beach to get some photos at sunset would lead me to an eye opening experience showing me just how privileged I am to speak English. I had never really consciously thought about the fact that I speak English, other than when I was in my High School Spanish class trying to figure out how in the world I’m supposed to roll a \r\ (I still can’t!). In the U.S., most people speak English and American’s have a horrible opinion that everyone in our country should speak English. “You’re in our country, speak the language!” or whatever other bullshit. After spending the last year traveling throughout Asia, I have never once been told that I need to “speak the language,” and I’ve typically had locals unnecessarily apologize for their “poor” English.

As I sat on the beach, I watched a boat pull-up from the water to drop off some tourists. Two girls jumped off onto the sand and I noticed that they were using sign language to communicate with each other. They walked up to the guide that had gotten off of the boat. Using the sand to write and draw, I watched the three of them have a conversation. The guide happily exchanged information in the sand with them. And then they went their separate ways.

How cool is that? I thought about how human connection is above the languages that separate us. And how we can communicate using so many different methods. But later the same night I saw a different story.

When you see a forgien movie in Malaysia the subtitles are in Malay, Chinese and English.
When you see a foreign movie in Malaysia the subtitles are in Malay, Chinese and English.

A few minutes later a Croatian woman walked over to me and started talking to me. She had been traveling alone for a few months and wanted someone to hang out with. Solo female travelers tend to find other solo females. We walked down the beach together and grabbed a drink. As she ordered her drink, she complained about how no of the locals spoke good English in Krabi and how “if they are going to live in an area with a lot of tourists, they should at least learn English.” She was so blatantly rude to the waiter, repeating her order 3 times and saying it unnecessarily slowly. “I bet he gets it wrong.”

The stark contrast between this interaction and the one I had seen only an hour earlier struck me. The waiter knew enough English to understand orders at the bar he worked at. And if he gets it wrong, so what? It’s just a $2 coffee.  Isn’t the point of traveling to experience other cultures not to degrade other people for not knowing yours? Also, the reason I mention that this woman is Croatian is because she’s not even a native English speaker. Not that it would make it any better, but you would think that someone who went through the process of learning a second language would understand that it’s a hard process. Someone who works full time and probably doesn’t have a lot of extra money around can’t just go and learn English.

Truly it’s a matter of both perspective and privilege. Before traveling in Asia, I had never thought about the fact that speaking English opened up so many doors for me. In almost every country I’ve been to (excluding China), anytime I needed something, I was typically able to find someone who spoke English.  I’ve very rarely been in the situation where I became frustrated because someone didn’t know what I was saying. If English wasn’t my first language, and I was trying to learn it as I traveled I would have a very different experience. It wouldn’t be impossible but it would be more challenging.

Speaking English is a privilege, an advantage, but it also doesn’t mean you need to know English to travel. The two girls I spoke of before were able to have a pleasant conversation with someone who not only didn’t speak the same language but also used a completely different way of communicating. It’s a way of traveling; its understanding that people should not embody a culture and language different than their own just because it’s more convenient for you.  If you don’t truly want to experience a different part of the world, stay home.

 Read Next A Year in Malaysia: What I Don’t Miss About the US

  1. Wow! I have just had a similar experience with Stu’s brother. Narrow minded people drive me away. Until the Tower Of Babel we all spoke Gods language. One race, one color, one language, one anything was not how we were created.

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Megan is from sunny California and is currently living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She funds her travels by teaching students with learning challenges and students applying to U.S. universities. She loves traveling like a local, eating amazing food and is always up for an adventure. Check out her about me section to learn more!

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