Have you dreamt of visiting the grand European landmarks you’ve heard about all your life, but felt uncertain about traveling someplace where you can’t make yourself understood? Have you pictured yourself mute and helpless at the door of a taxicab, or holding up an entire line of aggravated locals in a shop? It’s time you stopped worrying and started planning that dream vacation, because the fact is that English is on its way to becoming the common language of the world.
Thrillist offers a map of Europe showing the percentage of people in each country who are able to converse in English. Venturing outside the United Kingdom — a richly complex destination in itself — you can enjoy a safe, relaxing travel experience in the Netherlands, where 90% of the population speaks English. Moving northward, you’ll find yourself able to communicate with 86% of Swedes and Danes, and 70% of Finnish people. Austrians are also well-versed in English, with 73% of their citizenry able to carry on a conversation. It’s important to remember that these percentages are nationwide, so in cities the number of English speakers will be far higher than in the countryside.
While you can feel confident that in a real emergency, English speakers would be found to meet your need, you can’t entirely avoid the need to at least recognize some words in the local language. Just a few simple tools can bridge the occasional langage gaps you may encounter in a fun and non-intimidating way:
Keep this handy in a pocket or purse, so that you can pull it out and check the meaning of a few essential words such as “arrivals,” “ticket,” “bathroom,” and so on. (Actually, crucial signs in Western Europe are usually printed in both the local language and in English, so you won’t need your book all that often.) Unlike dictionaries, phrasebooks are created with travelers’ needs in mind, so you should read through the book before your trip and bookmark the pages that will be most useful to you.
These apps are still unreliable for sentence-level translation, but they can be very handy for translating and speaking a single word or very short phrase. Choose one with voice-recognition technology, and phone will listen and offer a written translation of what someone has said.
Simple maps and drawings don’t require artistry, and they’ll help you feel liberated from linguistic barriers. Want to explain where you’re from? Sketch an outline of the U.S., put in New York and Washington DC, and then show where your hometown is. Do you need to ask directions? Hand your notebook over to the person helping you, and let them sketch the route you should take. While most shopkeepers have an excellent command of English when it comes to saying numbers, you can always whip out your notebook and ask them to write a price if you’re confused. Numbers, like drawings, are universal.
In our global, digital world you shouldn’t hesitate to travel on account of worry over language barriers. In many cases, you’ll meet people eager to practice their English with a native speaker of it, and the effort to make yourself understood is often a way to laugh together and make new friends.