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What Is Language Privilege? Do I Have It?

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Having this privilege does not mean we are horrible people. But it does mean there are barriers and obstacles we do not face due to our language.

“You’re a native speaker; you can teach English.”

That statement is what everyone told me before I taught English abroad in Spain. If you were to research a teach English abroad program, you would find similar qualifications. And with the opportunity to teach and travel in Europe for a year, who would say no?

In the travel space, language privilege refers to the benefits and advantages a person receives due to the language they speak and its prevalence worldwide.

However, just because you speak a language does not always mean you can teach it. This notion is the impact of language privilege (also known as linguistic imperialism). In the travel space, language privilege refers to the benefits and advantages a person receives due to the language they speak and its prevalence worldwide. 

For those of you, like me, who speak English, language privilege applies to us. Having this privilege does not mean we are horrible people. But it does mean there are barriers and obstacles we do not face due to our language. Wondering how language privilege applies to you and how to use it for good? Here are a few examples.

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You Can Travel the World and Connect With Others More Smoothly

Exploring the beauty and diversity of the world is an inspirational experience. I also have felt its magic from walking on street art tours in Berlin to taking a cooking class in Mexico. Still, unless I am going to a small town, I can get by without bothering to learn another language.

The concept of backpacking or doing multi-country trips is possible due to English. It is the primary language of tourism. We can find people who may not be completely fluent but know more English than we do their language. English also makes connecting with them, and other travelers and locals, easier.

You Can Find Menus and Transportation Signs in Your Language

Even in countries where English is not the official language, English speakers often cannot tell the difference. As someone who studied Spanish years before going to Spain for my first time abroad, I was shocked to see how much of the airport was in English. These translations make navigating public transportation and even communicating with Uber and taxi drivers simpler.

The same applies to menus and ordering food and drinks. It is common in touristy areas of cities to find an English menu. Therefore we do not have to worry about ordering the wrong dish or Googling any translations. The waiters will also speak in English occasionally, and thus can answer any questions we have too.

You Have People Apologize for Not Knowing English

The global dominance of English also makes people feel pressured to know it. On my travels, people have apologized for their “bad English.” Whether I ask for directions in the Czech Republic or food recommendations in Budapest, it happens often. In all honesty, what they considered “bad” I thought was pretty darn good, especially since I don’t speak Czech or Hungarian. Reassure people you meet they do not need to apologize.

You Are the Target Audience for Travel Marketing

Remind me what language I’m writing in right now? Oh right, English! The primary language for travel marketing and media is English. Between travel influencer campaigns, social media, and websites full of listicles, the default is English, even if translations are available.

This focus can be exclusionary for those who do not speak English and want to travel too. 

Yes, some publications and tourism boards post in their official language. But those are few and far between. The travel industry is marketing to English speakers and readers to visit their destinations. This focus can be exclusionary for those who do not speak English and want to travel, too. 

How We Can Travel Better as English Speakers

Most of us could not help the language we were taught or born into speaking. And English is showing no signs of slowing its global influence. Yet, we can use our privilege to travel more responsibly. It is the least we can do as we are visitors to someone else’s country. Here are some ways to counter language privilege.

Learn Some of the Languages

One way we can be more responsible travelers is by learning the language. Becoming fluent would be a fantastic opportunity. But we know that is not always feasible. Thankfully, no one expects perfection!

Before booking a trip, learn a few common phrases and words to get around. Purchasing a pocket-sized vocabulary/grammar book, or even downloading a language-learning app to get some basics, are excellent ways to start. A little effort to connect in the local language goes a long way.

Do Not Demand People Speak to You English

No one likes an entitled traveler! This behavior has caused much tension between locals in tourist hotspots and English-speaking travelers. Locals we meet on our vacations, on tours, or through casual conversations should not be scolded for not speaking English.

Always treat locals with dignity and respect. Their homeland is not for us to make demands during our temporary stays. Suppose someone speaks English and is offering us help, fantastic. Still remember that they are doing us a courtesy. It is not the other way around. Say thank you and be grateful.

Embrace That There Will Still Be Things You Do Not Understand

Say you end up in a non-English speaking country. That may make you uncomfortable or nervous. Lean into that discomfort! Traveling is about experiencing something new. You do not always need to know everything that is happening. Unless you are in danger, embrace the unknown of traveling. It makes it more fun anyway.

Are There Other Examples of Language Privilege?

Of course. The tips to be better are endless, too. Even though language privilege can also affect French and Spanish speakers due to colonization, English takes the top spot. Knowing multiple languages can also change your privileged perspective, but that is a conversation for another day. 

We should be mindful of the power of language. The accessibility and acceptance of some languages more than others heavily impact how we travel the world. It can bring people together and push us further apart if not used wisely. Speak intentionally, and don’t let your privilege prevent you from being appreciative of the journey.

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