What Are Reasonable Language Expectations When Abroad?

Filed Under: Travel

I’m not someone who travels abroad and expects everyone to speak English. Quite the opposite — I’m perfectly happy trying to get around with hand gestures and Google Translate.

Along the same lines, I’m not someone who generally makes an effort to learn the language of the places I go. That’s partly because I go to 30-40 countries per year, and partly because I’m generally timid when it comes to trying to speak other languages and am scared I’ll sound like an idiot. I know some will appreciate the effort, but it makes me feel a bit insecure. It’s one of my quirks, I guess.

While I don’t think I have unreasonable language expectations of others, I do wonder how you guys generally approach this issue. When traveling abroad and dealing with international companies, should you expect some of their staff to have at least a basic understanding of English?

Let me give an example. Yesterday I landed in Changsha after my nonstop flight from Los Angeles on Hainan Airlines. Hainan Airlines includes chauffeur service for business class passengers, though I couldn’t figure out where the chauffeur was.

As luck would have it, in the arrivals hall there was a guy with a Hainan Airlines sign which read “Transfer Help.” Okay, he had a sign in English explicitly offering help and was waiting for those arriving off a flight from the US, so I figured he spoke at least a little English, and could point me in the right direction.

Changsha Airport arrivals hall

Nope, not a word. He meant well and was trying to help, and even walked around the terminal with me to find someone from Hainan Airlines who spoke English, though he couldn’t find anyone. We were obviously both frustrated by the situation.

I showed him the limo form I had with all the information, which was written in both English and Chinese, and he still had no clue what I was asking for (which I can’t blame him for, since this is a new twice weekly flight so he presumably never faced this situation before — I seemed to be the only person on my flight taking advantage of the limo service).

On one hand I thought to myself “it’s ridiculous they have a nonstop flight from the US but not a single person speaks English.” On the other hand, I was one of two Caucasians on the flight, so perhaps I wasn’t their target demographic. I compared it to hotels, where no matter which Starwood hotel in the world I stay at, a majority of the staff speak at least some English.

Sheraton Changsha, where the staff speak better English than I was expecting

But is that different, because Starwood is an American company, and Hainan Airlines is a Chinese company?

When it comes to travel providers, what are your expectations of them speaking English? Is the deciding factor where the customers are from that they’re serving (in other words, a Chinese airline flying from the US should have someone speaking English), or whether the company is American (in other words, they’re a Chinese airline in China, so you can’t expect them to speak English)?

  1. Sounds like you finally had a true non-western international travel experience.

    This happens pretty frequently in less visited cities. It’s best just to have fun with it and pull in a random person who speaks English.

  2. It’s not just the line staff at HNA who don’t speak English. I know plenty of senior managers there who pretend to speak the language and wind up confusing things even more.

  3. Ben,

    Did the google translate app not work? I’ve never had to use it but I’m curious to hear how it works in a real life situation.

  4. In interior Chinese cities, there’s not a lot of English spoken. Just go with what Tyler says and have fun with it. I do think it’s reasonable that someone manning a desk with an English sign has access to an English-speaking person.

    I’ve also run into this in the US at an Embassy Suites in Phoenix. The housekeeping staff were interrupting me in my room as I was on a conference call. It was hard for me to tell them when to come back as they didn’t speak a word of English and I speak no Spanish. They eventually got a supervisor who spoke (some) English. Trump for President! JK, kind of 🙂

  5. On my flight to Chengdu, I arrived prepared with maps to my hotel in Chinese. The flight crew warned me that taxi drivers spoke no English.

    Sure enough, even with maps – PICTURES – they could no understand where I needed to go. At one point I had four drivers all surveying my paperwork to no avail. Finally a young Chinese college student looked over my stuff told them what I needed and they still said they didn’t understand. The student had me dial the hotel from my cell phone and put the driver on the line. In less than 10 seconds the call was over and the driver took the most direct route to the hotel.

    That’s all incredibly odd to me, and I’ll be better prepared when going to China in the future.

  6. I know you don’t address readers like me with your questions but I couldn’t stop me from typing away.
    When I travel internationally I certainly expect local folks to speak at least some English. Why? Well, I don’t speak Spanish. So English is my best hope to get around in the US.
    You guessed right, international travel to me means going to the US.
    But it always puts a smile on my face when folks speak a few words in German.

  7. Lucky, how did it end? Did you get the transfer in the end? Sounds like this guy went out of his way to at least try – things really are improving in China.

    @Mark – I had a similar experience in Beijing even. I had a printed map in Chinese with the hotel, street names etc all clearly labelled. He studied it for a while and still seemed lost. But once he saw the phone number, he called and we were off a few seconds later. I have no idea why the map / hotel name didn’t work.

    Without fail, all of the cab drivers I had in Beijing said “Ni hao” when I got in. I’m told it’s from the campaign they had for better service during the Olympics. Even if they spoke no English (and I no Mandarin beyond that) it made for a nice ice breaker.

  8. I can certainly see this happen in a smaller city (not in US standard) in China. Only the generations born after 1970s had English education and most of them don’t use it after graduating from high school or college. This could change after the biweekly flight from US to Changsha. The funny thing is even as a mandarin native speaker, I have trouble understanding the local people’s accents, especially in the south.

    As for the map, since Chinese is not a letter based language, the domestic people won’t understand an English map. I had same issue helping a foreigner in China before.

  9. Yep. Arrived in Beijing expecting to be picked up by someone from my hotel that I booked on the hotel’s own English language hotel website that offered free airport pickup since it was in a historic hutong neighborhood and impossible for taxis to find. Confirmed via email. No one there on arrival. There were airport workers walking around with “ask me” in English buttons who spoke no English. Finally got the Chinese tour guide of an Australian tour to call the hotel. Got offered a free massage as compensation for the snafu, but that’s another story.

  10. I am Norwegian, and I expect every hotel or airline employee I meet to speak at least be able to communicate in English. It is not my native language, but what I consider to be the “lingua franca” of international travel is English. That is why I know it, and that is why I expect to be be able to communicate in that language when travelling abroad.

  11. My experience in China is that it is extremely hard to communicate. It seems to be go wrong on a cultural level. I had the same experiences as Mark with getting to places with cabs. I always prepare the address of where to go and show that and still it can go quite wrong. A good tool is for Shanghai area is Smart Shanghai app.

    This happens probably because Chinese language is complicated even for Chinese. There are many local dialects and when I ask a friend to read something it always takes them more time than I would expect and they are never 100% sure of translations.

    But you cannot really expect one of the most widely spoken languages in the world to have many English speakers.

  12. I think there’s a reasonable expectation that the person holding the sign actually speaks the language the sign is printed in. I mean, what’s point otherwise?

    I wouldn’t hold a sign in Mandarin that says, “ask me for help” if I didn’t speak Mandarin.

  13. China is a bit of a special case. I prepare much better in China and usually print the hotel address in Chinese and have the phone number available. I also get a taxi card from the hotel so I will find my way back.

    Worst case I call my wife to translate (like recently when I managed to order my food at a hotel but after picking the live fish couldn’t explain how I wanted it prepared).

    You will find more young people that speak some English and are very willing to help. So you could just ask a bit around for help.

    Had similar issues in Eastern European countries at the beginning after the Iron Curtain opened and I always had and still have some people from our local company on speed dial. Google translate worked in Brazil when I ventured out at least for some basic things.

    I do not expect people to speak English, it is nice but it is my responsibility to make it work if I visit their country.

  14. Hey Ben, I read your blog all the time, but have never commented before. However, having lived as an expat in Changsha about 10 years ago, I couldn’t help myself. I think it is really cool that Changsha got a mention on your blog. As others have noted, English speakers in non-coastal China are fairly rare, so it is often difficult for companies to find English speakers to hire, and many lie about their ability to speak English, because who would know? This comes as a surprise to people who have never traveled to China, or only to 1st tier cities where foreigners are more abundant, because people expect China’s economic growth to be an indicator it’s globalization (for lack of a better word). When I have visited China with friends who have never been before, they always express astonishment at the lack of English speakers; to which I respond, “You’d be even more surprised to find out how few speak Mandarin.” Let’s just say, there is a reason you had never heard of Changsha before. So, to your point about language expectations abroad, I think this is a case where expectations were skewed by the tremendous disparity in language ability between different locations in China.

    For me personally, I feel oddly guilty every time I can’t speak the local language, even though the only two non-English languages I have ever studied are Spanish and Chinese, and I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect anyone to learn an entire language for a brief trip. That being said, I think expectation are cultural as well. If I’m in Sri Lanka, nobody expects that I speak Tamil (I’m white), but if I’m in Paris, I feel like I’m judged for having no knowledge of French.

    P.S. Hunan food is the best there is in China, IMHO. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find an English menu at any place that is particularly good…

  15. My expectations?

    Any player in an industry which markets to the West should be staffed up with sufficient English speakers to ensure that their non-English speaking staff can fins someone who can be helpful.

    And call me a bit chauvinistic, but that means English in its capacity as the West’s predominant second language to the point that travelers from Brazil, France, Greece, Italy or Austria should anticpate, at most, English unless they have made particular arrangements for service in their native language.

  16. This happened to me the first time I visited Shanghai, in 2010. My flight arrived super late from ICN and thus the trains were closed. I approached a taxi stand and none of the drivers spoke any English and couldn’t understand my terrible Mandarin. I even had a printout in Chinese but no dice. Later I was told many of the cab drivers in Shanghai are relatively recent rural transplants and illiterate. Is this true?

    China is really tough sometimes. I remember trying to learn some Cantonese back in my 20s to prepare for a long business trip. After a week of practice, I tried it out on a colleague from HK. His response was “I can’t understand a damn thing you’re saying, dude.”

  17. I happen to take a different approach and try to learn the local language before going on a trip if I’ll be in a place where English isn’t common.

    Since I’m fluent in English and Spanish, that covers most of the Western Hemisphere.

    To prepare for my first trip to China (it was a few weeks ago) I started studying Mandarin Chinese. It’s really not a hard language to learn to speak (reading is different, though not as hard as I was expecting). While I was in Beijing, I did encounter people who didn’t speak a word of English, mainly cab drivers. While I wouldn’t say 4 months was enough to be considered passable, I was able to get by with basic words (where, how far, how long, here, there, stop, please, thank you, etc) just fine. I was also able to understand their responses when I asked them to repeat what they said slowly. I found that they were perfectly willing to talk slower and clearer, which really helped. Funny enough, the 100 characters I’d leaned by the time I visited China came more in handy. Since I didn’t have to worry about accents and the speed people normally talk at, I was able to read the characters to find basic things like bathrooms, directions (N, S, E, W), names of things (like the characters for China and Beijing) etc.

    While I expect English at major American branded hotels abroad, I don’t expect locals to speak all that much English. I found that in rural Italy, Spain, Argentina and Brazil none on the locals spoke any English, and the fact that I can communicate in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese really came in handy. It not only impresses people, but opens them up to trying their (potentially broken) English after you embarrass yourself first.

  18. I always try to learn at least a few basic phrases in the local language, as well as hello, goodbye, thank you, please, excuse me, yes, no, etc. Even though, realistically, I’m probably going to botch the pronunciation, most people appreciate the effort and I get a friendly reception.

    I don’t really expect anyone to speak English. Usually, someone does, but I just see it as an added bonus, not an expectation. I can see how it would be frustrating, or potentially even a little scary, not being able to communicate with anyone, but that’s part of the adventure of travel sometimes, right?

  19. I took your same flight and had a horrible experience with the limo company provided by Hainan as the driver took 2 hours to find the Intercontintental hotel (should have taken 30 minutes). He spoke no English.

    I found maybe 1 in a few hundred spoke English in Changsha. Very difficult. I used Google Translate most of the time or I would have been SOL.

  20. It’s an interesting question. I regularly travel to France for work. It is an international project, so English is the language at work, but outside of work I have similar problems, and I’m at least able to decently read French. I’m non-conversational with it though and I like you hate trying to speak it other than simple phrases.

    When travelling though, I do think airports should support English as much as possible. English is the international language of aviation, all pilots are required to speak it for communications with ATC. I don’t expect that everyone should speak English, but having someone on hand would be a great idea.

    That’s just my point of view. Not that I think English needs to be the universal flying language, but it just is, and so that should be carried through the airport. Not every employee should speak it, but someone should be on hand to communicate.

  21. Our family had a similar experience arriving by train to Shanghai. The arranged car could not be found and we took a cab into the city. Normally, if I know beforehandI ‘m using a cab I’ll have destination/directions printed out in the local language, but in this case I wasn’t prepared. Fortunately, we were staying at a landmark (The Peace Hotel on the Bund). The only way we communicated our destination to the cab driver was by showing a photo of the hotel on my phone.

  22. The point with having somebody or -bodies with some capacity with English isn’t that it’s to bow down to people who only speak English; it’s that English has broadly become the lingua franca for much of the world – certainly in business and among many travelers. So, for an airline targeting any international audience, having some capacity to provide service in English seems reasonable. Not everybody, but someone to some degree. Though as has been mentioned, in general, some of this is cultural as well. I speak French but have seen much disdain shown, in hotels and restaurants, to those who don’t at least try to – even if the person were able to communicate in English just fine. Conversely, go to The Netherlands and nobody in a hotel or restaurant would ever expect you to speak Dutch. I actually do – which goes miles in dealing with people just as a side benefit – but it’s certainly not any kind of expectation.

  23. My biggest surprise regarding language when travelling has been the inability of Americans in the US to understand my British English – clear normal English I do not have a regional accent. This is not sarcasm by the way but genuine surprise. Particularly in Miami I must say.

  24. The language barrier is Prague was next to nothing, although I made to sure to introduce myself by saying “Hello, do you speak English?” in Czech every time I met somebody. The most amusing exchange happened at the Emirates counter at the airport. He responded by saying “Yes, of course.” in perfect English. (Cool story, bro.)

    It will be interesting to see how the language barrier is in the smaller Czech towns when I go there in May.

  25. While I used to be much more on the side of needing to make an effort in the local language and not expecting any English skills, ironically the more I’ve traveled and the more international friends I have the more I expect everyone in customer facing travel & tourism roles to know English. I actually find my non-American friends to be less tolerant of people who don’t know English than myself (probably because they feel they had to learn it and it’s not their native tongue so expect others to as well).
    Either way I always try to make my best effort and aside from international hotel chains and airlines, am forgiving when folks have no English skills. Doesn’t make it less frustrating though 🙂

  26. @stuart even as an American I’ve definitely made note of those trends. I only speak English but I always start conversations in France with as much French as I can manage before asking (in french) if they speak english. Definitely makes a huge difference in my experience – more so in Paris ironically than elsewhere. In other non-Dutch/Nordic countries I always use local language greetings and switch to English thereafter which seems to be sufficient.

  27. I have to agree with Leo, I find it highly amusing how many Americans can’t understand my British accent, yet people throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia, even those who barely speak English, can understand me.

    On the topic of languages, I recently stayed in Sofitel hotels in UK, France, and Belgium. In the UK reception staff always greeted me in French first – presumably because it’s a French hotel chain – before switching to English. However, in France and Belgium I found most staff would speak English initially, and only switch to French if I started speaking it. I found this rather bizarre.

    On another note, I had a receptionist in a hotel in UAE last year who couldn’t speak English or Arabic, which seemed fairly ridiculous.

  28. This happens all the time in areas of China, but not just China. I’ve found that in Beijing cab drivers can’t read maps, no matter how big, and if it’s all written in Chinese. You can tell someone who’s not used to reading a map. They turn the map around and around.

    They aren’t trying to rip you off either. I’ve had the cabbies turn off the meter and start asking people on bicycles, etc.

    I’ve spent about 3 years learning Mandarin and it’s been fascinating. (Way back in school, I did 5 years of French and Japanese and while I loved Japanese, I never found I could read enough of the Chinese characters in Japanese (Kanji). Now that I can read a lot of Chinese characters, I can understand far more Japanese than I could before.

    Bottom line is that if want to deal with “the world” rather than just with the English-speaking world, you should make some effort to learn more. It’s suggested that if you have a passing knowledge of English, Mandarin, and Spanish that you could communicate with more than 90% of the people in the world at some level. That’s a good start.

    I picked Mandarin to learn as I think it’s by far the most useful. Language predictions for the 2020’s suggest the number of native speakers of it will be by far the most common, with Spanish the #2 language in that regard. The main reason is birth rates where 1 in 4 children born today will speak Mandarin, and 1 in 5 will speak Spanish. English is way down the list because most English natives are barely replacing themselves population-wise.

  29. I should have also added that when you make any attempt to learn any language, you invariably learn a lot about the culture of the place.

    Knowing things about the local culture will enhance your travels.

  30. We flew CTU-SFO a week after that flight launched and nobody in immigration spoke a word of English, and nobody knew how to do the 72 hour transit visa. But in any case it didn’t matter because we had a connecting flight in a few hours and weren’t leaving the airport. We ended up getting one stamp for arriving and departing China. There was no international to international sterile area at CTU.

    Luckily our F flight attendant translated for us with immigration. Us and another guy in F were the only other westerners on board the plane.

  31. I am similar to BT, I try to learn the basic 9 phrases: hello, good bye, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me, good morning/day/night, and how much. I also listen to what people say to me when I use these phrsases and file it away for immediate use. To me this is part of what foriegn travel is about.

    I treat it all as a fun exercise in learning about a culture. It’s especially interesting when you pass through countries that have similar but different languages (such as Czech, Slovak, Polish). I also try to read menus and ask for my pronounciation to be corrected. Once unbeknowst to me, I was reading bus posters outloud in Krakow and all the passengers burst into laughter; they then proceeded to give me an affectionate lesson in the intricacies of this difficult language. They were enjoying themselves and appreciated that I was really trying. It was one of the more memorable moments of that trip.

    Of course, Chinese is a different story, I can’t make much headway with a language that doesn’t share my alphabet.

  32. I found most of the staff of ChinaEastern, when flying HKG-PVG spoke at least a little English, even on the ground. The few taxi drivers I encountered could read the Chinese character cards I used for addresses, even if they had no English. My tip for visiting Shanghai (and Beijing) is to brush off those people who want to walk with you ‘to improve their English’. They don’t, and are sucking you into a scam to relieve you of a lot of money via your AMEX! (and don’t imagine Amex will help you out either!)

  33. I expect companies doing business with Americans/international to have at least some English support. At the same time, I always bring translations (via Google Translate) of everything important as a hedge. I also download the language to Google Translate offline which is beyond helpful.

  34. While traveling in Germany I went to hair salon with a written out script in German that I was prepared (and a bit proud of) to use. When I arrived I first asked if he spoke English. He looked at me oddly and said “of course”. I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to use the script I had worked so hard on but it taught me that for the rest of my trip the only German I needed to know was. “sprechen sie englisch?”

  35. You travel to 30-40 countries per year?! are you sure?! from you posts it seems it’s only 10-15 different countries

  36. I feel you about the whole being timid about speaking to another person in a language that isn’t English. That’s despite being a very talkative person in English. I force myself to do it by asking people- like hotel staff, etc- that I know understand English to suffer through my butchering their language. Most are pretty agreeable to this so long as they aren’t busy.

    I don’t expect anyone in a foreign country to speak English unless it’s one of their common languages. My general approach is to learn at least the basics- introductions, how to apologize, say thank you, ask for directions, food, etc- if I have enough lead time. Duolingo on long haul flights is a gift from the tech gods by the way. Otherwise, I am trying to attain some degree of conversational ability in languages that will be useful for me in my professional travels. Right now I am focusing on Spanish with Portuguese, French and Russian planned for later. After that, I might pick up German (which I used to be conversant in as a child), Polish or one of the Asian languages as my next challenge. I refuse to be “that guy” who can’t be bothered to learn the basics.

    Funny related story: Having traveled in Africa, I once had a professional conversation that turned into a multilingual game of ‘telephone’. While I took four years of French in high school, I don’t remember enough or use it enough to do anything except introduce myself, ask for directions and maybe get slapped by a woman. I would ask the the question to a colleague who spoke French and English. It would get passed to another person spoke French and the local native language and finally to the person I needed information from. LOL

  37. For most countries I try to learn at least a little bit. Basic phrases, polite words, greetings, etc. There’s a language learning company called Survival Phrases that’s pretty helpful and they usually give the first few lessons away for free. So spending a few minutes listening to them on the flight, is generally enough to learn how to at least say Hello, Please and Thank You. Per their tagline, “A little bit goes a long way!”

  38. Just an fyi on Google Translate. We refuse to use Google Translate at my workplace because it is laughably inaccurate. I say this because I speak 3 different languages and have seen the pitiful results. Others that I work with who are multi-lingual agree that Google Translate can confuse your “audience”. I’d only use it if I wanted to convey a simple message that would not consist of more than 4 words. Just want to help others avoid aggravation and confusion!

  39. For goodness sake, it’s now 2016! Not 1916! In 1916, UK had a vast empire all over the world and so, yes, English *was* indeed the lingua franca. That’s 100 years ago! Now, in 2016, Chinese is soon becoming the lingua franca. Isn’t it about time everyone start learning some Chinese? Sorry for putting it so bluntly. But hmm, isn’t it time to “wake up”.

    And what’s so surprising? China has always been the “center” of Earth (that’s why it’s Chinese name is: Middle Kingdom) for literally thousands of years (during which its culture is spread to Japan, Korea, Vietnam etc through trade, and not war), save for the past 100 years when the West dominated (during which its culture was spread through North America and the rest of the world through massacre of the natives to near extinction). So it’s neither surprising – nor scary – to have it re-dominate the world scene again, in say, another few decades. A dominant China should be welcomed more than a dominant West – unless one refuses to acknowledge history of what has happened when China / West was / is powerful.

  40. To add: A dominant China is one where Tibetans are still around to protest for an independent Tibet, and Xinjiang natives are still aroound to commit terrorism (or “terrorism”, depending on how you look at it) in Xinjiang. A dominant West? Are there still any Native Americans around in significant numbers to fight for an independent North America? Hint: Wounded Knee Massacre!

    Bottomline: Learn the language that is going to overtake English soon *and* it is going to be a more benign culture compared to the English culture… that is, if we are objective and respectful of historical facts.

  41. @John – What warped world do you live in? The only reason a lot of people speak Chinese is because there are 1.5 billion Chinese living in China. A single country. And Chinese is only really spoken in China and small pockets of other SE Asian countries, so I don’t know what your delusions sprout from.

    There is no chance that Chinese overtakes English. Who are you, the Chinese government or some other brainwashed into thinking China is the center of the universe? Hint: it’s nobody.

  42. Hong Kong and Mainland China’s TV drama e.g. those ancient gongfu sword-fighting serials, are pretty popular in Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia etc. Time and again, on youtube, I will read comments by Vietnamese etc asking: “Do you have the English subtitle / translation to this favorite movie”, to which someone will eventually reply: “please learn some Chinese”, to which the poser will then answer in all innocence: “But I am not Chinese; I am Vietnamese”. Often, I wanted to comment (but didn’t) : “So? Being Vietnamese clearly did not stop you from learning English. Why should it stop you from learning Chinese?” Wake up, your biggest neighbor is China, not USA! And so, it is similar here. To answer Lucky, the reasonable language expectation is when you are in China (and give or take another 50 years, in Asia), you should know how to speak Chinese. (And of course, if you are in South America, then Spanish etc)

  43. @ken no need to get so worked up. I understand your frustration at being told the truth. So if you prefer, you can continue to live in your frog well or bubble or ivory tower or whatever. History speaks for itself (and history does repeat itself, you know?)

  44. @Ken The entire Asia from Japan in the north to Singapore at the bottom “tip” spoke and / or write the Chinese Language, in one form or another at some point in their history as recently as less than a century ago! It’s less than 100 years when the Vietnamese and Koreans were still using Chinese characters in their writings! And even now, the Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean languages all shared similar sounds / meanings as the Chinese language. But well, in your warped world, I suppose you don’t see the re-gain of Chinese influence versus the decline in English influence in Asia. Which warped world do you live in? Certainly not Asia, right?

  45. Thanks for the laugh John. BTW, there is no such thing as “Chinese language”. There is only Mandarin and Cantonese. All those countries that no longer speak/write Chinese is proof of Chinese taking over? What kind of logic is that? Have you even been to SE Asia yourself? The only country that speaks Chinese in SE Asia is China and its territories.

    BTW, how did you even find this blog?

  46. I am pretty much in agreement here. I don’t expect foreign countries to speak English just to accommodate Americans, Brits, Aussies, etc. who are visiting. Similarly, I don’t think the US must officially accommodate languages other than English. That being said, if a company is catering to a customer base that speaks another language, there is some expectation that the language of that base be supported. If a US hotel chain that has a large portion of American guests is located in a country that has limited English, they still should have staff that can communicate in English. Similarly, if a US business deal with a significant number of customers who are visiting from overseas, they would be wise to have bilingual staff to interact with those customers.

  47. I studied French and German just for travelling. English/French/German doesn’t work everywhere but I figure it’s better than English-only. I do not travel to Asia though.

  48. Ben, I have been reading your blog for years and have always been agog at your patience with posters – so I LOVE your reply to Shannon! About time you gave a bit of attitude back 🙂 More, please! And, on topic, I totally agree – if someone is holding a sign in English, you have a right to expect them to speak English – regardless of the morality and ethics of visiting foreign lands.

  49. In my years in China, I have not met any native Chinese (who have not studied overseas) to be able to use English with better than a middle school level of fluency. This includes people who have studied 4 years of English as a English major at a Chinese college. Everyone else will probably speak less English. English is just a really hard language for Chinese people, probably because it’s so different.

    In addition, people you’ll meet in the service industry might not have gone to college, and even if they did, probably studied English only as a side subject. So with that in mind, you should tamper your expectations significantly in China, especially when travelling in a smaller (relatively) city like Changsha where foreigners are rare. (Imagine trying to learn English pronunciation if you’ve never met a native English speaker in your life.)

    On the other hand, I don’t think much English fluency is required in your situation with the chauffeur (3rd grade level maybe?). Now that Hainan has flights to the US from Changsha, they *should* have someone who has enough English fluency to solve your problems.

    Also, for some reason Chinese cab drivers do not read maps. Not sure why, but always make sure your address is written in Chinese, and not on a map.

  50. I was in Yantai China last year. There is a bus known as “the tourist bus”. On the side of the bus was a sign in Chinese and English. In English it said “for tourist information go to” and there was a URL. The website was completely in Chinese. Not one word in English nor an icon leading to English web pages.

  51. Its going to be interesting for me as i haven’t traveled anywhere where a decent amount of people speak English. Did you ever find the car driver? Any advice on where to find them? That was my hope that with the car service id be just fine once i get to the hotel At least the city train system isn’t very complicated as it only goes in 2 directions.

    I downloaded a menu/sign translation app and will probably be buying a 2 way Chinese-English translation device i found on amazon. Plus i signed up for a website that teaches Mandarin called FluentU to at least learn some basics before my trip at the end of March,

    Any suggestions on a VPN?

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