SPEAK Languages & TRAVEL the World as the name for my website just cropped up in my mind spontaneously one day without having to think at all. After a lifetime of travelling and speaking various languages it just came very naturally because I have always appreciated being able to communicate more or less efficiently during my travels. One of the only countries where I had great difficulty in 1987, when I was one of the very first independent visitors to enter the country, was in China, a still very medieval country in every way then. It was that much more interesting, like going back in time, a real challenge for communication also because of the Chinese characters which we couldn't read. A tiny phrase book came to our rescue when hands, feet and drawings failed to communicate our needs. Nobody, not even in the big hotels, spoke English then!
Exactly 29 years later I have returned to China to watch my daughter compete in the World Inline Speedskating Championships in Nanjing. What a land of contrasts today: Nanjing is an ultramodern town full of very efficient services like the clean, fast metro; the extremely wide roads and roundabouts are lined & adorned with beautifully groomed trees, plants & bushes turning them into incredible parks and young people dressed like in the west are all engrossed in their smartphones. Yet there are many tell-tale signs that make me feel the countryside I haven't had the opportunity to visit this time around is much more traditional in its ways: meeting women with baskets balanced from their shoulders like scales, full of fruit to sell; the loud clearing your throat before spittle lands noisily on the floor; the women with scythes cutting the grass along the roadsides and leaving their pans of rice dishes in the sunshine to warm up for lunch; the shyness in meeting foreigners...
Yes, while China has made progress in leaps & bounds from medieval to ultramodern in just 30 years - Beijing, an invasion of bicycles, only had taxis and cars for diplomats 30 years ago - my experience in town, even in the big hotels, even young doctors, was that 90% of the young population still does not speak any or does not feel comfortable even trying to speak English. Most people avoided me if I asked a question because they felt embarrassed. No one thought of using hands, feet or drawings but many googled the expressions they wanted to use into their smartphones, sometimes coming up with very funny expressions which had nothing to do with our conversations.
So why go to the bother of learning a foreign language when you can 'Google' it?
Because communication is not only about basic needs but also about expressing feelings and emotions that need human contact and not only a 'cold' digital translation. Learning a foreign language gives you insight into a people's culture and opens your mind. Let's not give 'Google Translator' the opportunity to take away those incredible experiences from us. Let's carry on learning languages to travel the world!!