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Travel traumas: what we take for granted as a nation who speak English


Over the last few weeks, during the travel chaos that has ensued as a result of the heavy snowfall in Europe, the main news items that have featured in the British media have involved disgruntled UK passengers trying to get abroad for Christmas and New Year.

As always with us Brits, we have complained about the level of service and the lack of provision for a 'backup plan', and generally the dissatisfaction of the whole situation.

Being stuck in an airport for hours on end is never fun, but at least outbound UK passengers will have largely been able to understand what was going on, and to make themselves heard at information desks and the like. Spare some thought then for the hundreds of foreign, and potentially non-English speaking passengers whose plans to get to friends and family in time for Christmas were also ruined.

Something that we can be fairly confident in, is that if the same situation had happened to us in a foreign country, a good number of the airport staff and services teams would have been able to communicate with us in English. In the midst of a crowd of unhappy people, with tannoys relaying what could potentially be essential information blaring every two minutes, it must be scary and confusing not to understand what is happening with your flight, or indeed what you are supposed to do if yours is one that flashes up as 'cancelled' amidst a flurry of groans and angry questions pertaining to what, if anything, the poor unfortunates on the information desk are 'going to do about it'.

Of course, there is no question that English is one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide, and this in itself explains a lot in terms of why Brits and Americans aren't, in general, well-known worldwide for their enthusiasm and prowess when it comes to speaking foreign languages. It's fair to say though that not having to learn a foreign language in order to get by abroad is something that we do take for granted.

Our airports and major train stations may have some signs translated into other languages, and the odd employee who has some foreign language skills, but they are unlikely to exist on the same scale as in other European countries. In addition, in some UK airports it seems that only English-version terms for destination cities are used, a small point on the face of it, but assuming that every Italian knows that Firenze and Florence are the same place, for example, can not necessarily be taken for granted and especially in a chaotic environment may lead to misunderstandings.

There's one thing for certain about situations like travellers have found themselves in over the last few weeks - it makes them put on a united front and in general ensures a certain camaraderie in the face of disillusion, and it would be nice to think that this went for one and all, whether from Skegness, Stuttgart or Siena...

If you're unfortunate enough to find yourself in a similar form of travel hell again, spare a thought for the obstacles that anyone with a limited grasp of English might be encountering too. Even if your German, Slovakian, Spanish, whatever language it might be, is a little rusty at best, attempting some basic communication to help someone in a difficult situation will, I’m sure, be much appreciated.