Don’t want to act like a typical American tourist? Don’t talk like one

The Iglesia de La Merced in Antigua, Guatemala. Photos are by Christopher Muther.
Christopher Muther/Globe Staff
The Iglesia de La Merced in Antigua, Guatemala. Photos are by Christopher Muther.

Many Americans traveling abroad pride themselves on speaking two languages: English, and Loud English.

English is the defacto. But if English is not understood in France, Portugal, Peru, or anywhere else in the world, some American tourists proudly show off their Loud English skills. They reason that speaking the same words many decibels louder will somehow make them understood, even if that means repeatedly screaming “Where . . . is . . . the . . . bathroom?” at an upscale restaurant in a remote region of Mexico.

Sorry to burst this mylar balloon, but Loud English does not help. What it does instead is buttress a stereotype that travelers from the United States are boorish and uninterested in other cultures. True or not, our lack of language skills, or disregard of other languages, gives the appearance that we’re stomping around the globe as if it’s our personal Epcot World Showcase.


“Travelers should learn a few phrases just to be courteous,” said Dan Reynolds, an associate professor of German at Grinnell College in Iowa. “People from the host country always appreciate at least some effort, and it can result in more polite treatment. It also helps combat negative stereotypes about American travelers.”

It’s not necessarily our fault that many US tourists are deficient in a second language. The Pew Research Center found that the United States does not have a nationwide foreign language mandate at any level of education. Compare that to Europe, where studying more than one foreign language is compulsory in more than 20 countries. Those children begin their studies between the ages of 6 and 9.

However, just because you only had a few years of Spanish in high school does not excuse you from being courteous.

“Americans have traditionally been the ones who expect everyone else to speak English,” said Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “I think that’s a very naive way to approach the world.”

Taking a narrow and naive approach to traveling abroad in politically contentious 2017 may not be the most advantageous way to see the world and win over friends on your journey.


“These days, with our xenophobic president, it may even be more important for Americans to make the effort to learn some basic sentences,” said Peter Rettig of the Boston-based website Games for Language. “We have certainly found during our travels that making an effort in even trying to speak the local language is greatly appreciated and opens hearts and doors.”

“I have no doubt that Americans are going to face more skepticism,” Reynolds added. “Trump is unpopular globally.”

The good news is, regardless of your political views, there are multiple options for linguistic studies before you travel. It’s easy to avoid becoming a walking stereotype, and in many cases, learning a new language is inexpensive, or completely free.

When should you start your lesson? The experts say as soon as possible. According to a study from the language website and app Duolingo, the best time to begin your lessons is one month before your trip. An analysis of 700 Duolingo users found that 80 percent were able to reach a basic level of proficiency after 30 days. That means they could handle greetings, introductions, and basics such as asking directions and ordering food.

Abbott suggests creating a schedule for learning a language, and committing to that schedule as much as possible.


“It’s easy now,” she said. “People can do it during their commute. They can do it when they’re exercising. And there are so many language apps to choose from that don’t cost any money.”

‘Travelers should learn a few phrases just to be courteous.’

For those who need the discipline of a classroom environment, the Boston Center for Adult Education offers language classes specifically geared to travelers.

“It’s more of a casual class,” said Andrew Castronovo, program manager of the BCAE. “Culture is covered just as much as language. How to hail a taxi. How to order from a menu. How to get around a city. The class is catered more toward people who have less time and may be less interested in the academic side of learning a language.”

At the Goethe-Institut in Back Bay, German is taught with a side of tea and cookies. The idea is to get language learners enthusiastic about German culture, not just conjugating verbs and memorizing the German word for beer, which, fun fact, is bier.

“We try our best to have them emerge into German culture, food, and music,” said Rawan Zoubi of Goethe. “All of these fun things that make learning a language easier. We want to teach students all the grammar and pronunciation, we also want to give them a feeling of, ‘How is Germany? How are the German people?’ ”

But let’s get selfish for a moment, shall we? Aside from being polite and charming, the real reason you should learn a foreign language is for yourself. Travel is about romance and falling in love with your destination. The best way to do that is through immersive experiences and getting to know people, not a guide book.

Isabella Perricone, who teaches Italian and leads tours through her company Parla Presto, is quite passionate on the subject of absorbing culture through language and the difference between being a tourist and a traveler.

“A tourist never questions their own culture,” Perricone said, loosely quoting from the 1949 novel “The Sheltering Sky.” “The traveler is somebody who’s very, very curious about all other cultures.”

“So before I begin with a student I always ask, ‘Do you want to be a tourist, or do you want to be a traveler?’ ”

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Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther. Follow him on Instagram @Chris_Muther.