Do you speak English? – Wandering Jon

by learn a language journalist

“We’re going to Romania!” we said to the server at the cafe we frequent in Idyllwild. Her response was along the lines of “Oh, I’d be so scared traveling places they don’t speak English!”

She’s not alone in that feeling. I’ve heard that same sentiment from dozens, if not hundreds, of fellow English speakers in America. As I wrote here, Two Reasons not to be afraid of traveling outside the English speaking world, which talks about just how hard it is for most travelers these days to actually find a place no one speaks a least little English, one really doesn’t need worry. 

Here in Romania that is as true as anywhere.  One Uber driver explained that, “no problem here, speaking English is every Romanian’s second hobby”. Which after 2 weeks here I can say seems to be the case, but it leaves this odd questioning hanging before me.

Once upon a time in Hungary

In 1996 I made my first tour around Europe, backpacker style through 8 countries in a month. The least English speaking place of any of those was Budapest, Hungary where it was legitimately common to walk into shop and have no one that spoke any English. 

The primary second language at the time was Russian, as were most of the tourists.  Funny how those go hand and hand.  Back then what I did find however was that everyone my own age (24) and younger spoke some to a lot of English, whereas nearly everyone over 30 didn’t. The youngins were eager to practice and quite often some random under 30 person in the shop or on the street would lend a hand (or tongue?), whether need or not.  Honestly, you can still handle most basic needs nonverbally.

Bucharest is not Budapest, nor is it still 1996

I was expecting Bucharest, Romania to be a bit more like Budapest, Hungary at least as far as language was concerned. However, 20 years later everyone, and I mean everyone in Bucharest seems to speak English. Most even do so not just at a rudimentary level, but fluently.

English fluency is so common here it seems almost odd after a while to start a conversation with “Do you speak English?”. The tipping point for me I think was when the stock boy at a local market answered my question on where to find something obscure fluently with “Oh, sure cornstarch is over here, there are two kinds this is the coarse kind, but this over here fine kind which I think is what you want.” 

In 2 weeks here and I can’t recall a single interaction where I didn’t consider the other party fluent or nearly so. This isn’t purely tourist facing businesses, but then isn’t talking to general laborers either.

How do you start a conversation?

I’m at the point here that I simultaneously assume everyone does, while also feeling awful about just “assuming everyone does”…  

I’d really love to hear in the comments how you all navigate this?

This content was originally published here.

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