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Aug 272012

Your foreign language skills – or interpreter – may end up as being literally a life or death choice.

In thinking about possible international bug-out locations, an obvious variable is the degree to which a foreign location is filled with English speakers (or not!), and the degree to which we might already be or could become proficient at the language of the destination we are considering.

We in the US are either blessed or cursed by being born speaking English.  English is not the most common mother tongue in the world – it is actually the third – Mandarin/Chinese is of course the first, and Spanish is second.  After English in third place, there is Hindi (India) and Arabic to round out the top five.

But when you factor in the number of people who speak English as a second language, English starts to catch up with Mandarin and may even overtake it.  Some studies suggest a total of about 1.15 billion Mandarin speakers (first or second language) and about 1 billion English speakers; we feel this probably understates both languages and the number of people who can speak them to some degree or another.  There are over 1.3 billion people in China, and while not all of them speak Mandarin as their first language, many speak it as a second language to some degree or another.  And as for the number of people who speak English, that is a very definitional thing.  In addition to the mother tongue countries, there is almost all of Europe who speaks it as a second language, then countries like the Philippines where it is an official language, India where it is widespread, and so on around the world.  It is easy to add up more than a billion English speakers.

There’s another element to the importance of English.  While there might be more Chinese speakers in the world as a whole, most of them are in China.  But English speakers can be found in just about every country in the world (including an official 10 million in China too, but the generally accepted number of Chinese who either speak it well, poorly, or are currently learning it is believed to be more like 300 million).  Although other countries have been keen to have their language become the international ‘lingua franca’ the reality is that English is unassailably the dominant second language that people learn if they want to be most likely to be understood everywhere in the world.

Learning Other Languages

The bottom line is that due to the prevalence of English all around the world, we as Americans have seldom felt the need to learn a second or third language, and if we as adults are now to start learning a second language for the first time, we will find it very difficult.  Language learning ability is something that drops off steeply as people age, and if you’ve never learned a second language before, you’ll find it difficult to do so as an adult.

In other words, we suggest it is very beneficial to consider primarily countries that have a good level of English spoken in them; and/or if not so good, you absolutely must start learning the foreign language now.  We’ve found the Pimsleur language tapes and CDs to be the best way for us, but you need to go through all three levels (a total of 90 lessons) to have even a basic level of ability.

You might want to try one of the short, sampler versions of a Pimsleur language to see how easy they make it.  They are not very expensive (usually under $30) and give you a good feeling for their style of natural learning.

Beyond the Pimsleur system, you also need to start reading (and ideally writing) in the foreign language, and also listening to the foreign language and learning to recognize the words as much as possible.

There are any number of easy ways to start reading a foreign language – just go to the internet and start browsing websites from the country in question, in their own language, for example.

As for listening to the foreign language, we recommend getting DVDs of movies from that country that have subtitles in English.  The subtitles won’t necessarily be a perfect one to one translation of what is being said, but it will help you during the course of multiple playings to get the sense of most of the words.

It is important to regularly practice your developing language skills so as to shift what you are learning from your short-term memory into your long-term memory.  If you don’t do this, you’ll be forgetting stuff as fast as you learn it.

Some people recommend a full-immersion approach.  Go to the foreign country and just start speaking the language.  If you are adventurous and willing to make lots of mistakes, this could work.  But we’ve found, when traveling to countries where we speak only a little of the local language that sometimes our language skills drop off while we’re in country!  The reason for this unusual outcome is that the locals all want to speak to us in English to practice their English, and when we use their local language, we of course only use the words we know and are comfortable with, and so aren’t really extending or developing our vocabulary and skills at all.

Some people also advocate getting a native speaker to help you learn the language.  We think this is a bad idea.  The reason we make this unintuitive comment is because native speakers of a language have never formally been taught how to speak the language – they’ve just grown up, learning the language ‘organically’.  So when it comes to teaching someone how to speak, they have no experience in learning the language the way we would learn it, and so can’t do as effective a job at helping us learn it other than as an infant.  It is better to have a professional teacher, whether they be a native speaker or not, teach you.  The key thing is to find a person skilled in the methodology of teaching the language – this is more important than a person who is 100% fluent.

Some languages are easier or harder to learn than others – if you have a choice of where you go, you would be well advised to give preference to countries with easier to learn languages.  Here are some of the issues to consider in judging if a language is easy or hard.

Unfamiliar Alphabets Add to the Difficulty

Are we stating the obvious by pointing out that not all other languages use the same 26 letters that we do?  The good news of course is with languages that use fewer than our 26, and it is also acceptable for languages that add a few accents over some selected letters.  At least if the basic letters are the same, they are familiar and easy for us to instantly recognize, even if we have to give them different sounds.

But how about languages with totally different letters?  Not just ones which look the same, albeit slightly different (ie Greek and Russian) but ones which look totally utterly different such as Arabic and Hindi?  Languages that go from right to left, or vertically, rather than from left to right?

That makes things much harder to learn.

Furthermore, when we learn one word, we get clues from the word as to what other similar words might mean, because they have the same ‘root’ components.  For example, in English, if you know the word ‘build’ you can maybe guess at the word ‘builder’ or ‘building’.  It is the same sort of concept in most other languages too.  Once you know some words, you can guess at the meaning of other words.

But wait – there’s more.  At least most other foreign languages use the same concept as we do with English – they use words which are made up of letters, just different shaped letters.  How about languages such as Japanese and Chinese that instead use a different character for each word?  Instead of learning just a foreign alphabet of 20 – 40 letters and how to pronounce their words based on the letters contained within them, you need to learn thousands of different pictures, one for each word, and you have no real clue from the picture as to the word’s meaning or its pronunciation.

That massively complicates the learning process.

Unfamiliar Grammatical Concepts

In some respects (but not all!) English is easy for non-English speakers to learn, perhaps because it has been formed, over the years, from a combination of many elements of many other languages, becoming a sort of ‘lowest common denominator’ for many of them.  It seems the more that a language ‘evolves’ the simpler, rather than the more complicated, it becomes.

As a result, English no longer has some of the more complicated aspects of grammar and syntax which other languages still have.  For example, our nouns do not have a sense of gender, unlike almost all other languages.  In most other languages, all nouns have a gender – for example, the word for building might be a masculine word, but the word for garage might be feminine.  There is no consistency or easy way of guessing whether a word should be male or female.

It is necessary to match the gender of the noun to related adjectives and verbs.

To make things more complex, some languages have three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter.

You are familiar with the concept of singular and plural, but some languages have two forms of plural – one form for a few more than one, and a second form for many more than a few.

Then there is the concept of tenses.  In this respect, English is actually more complicated than many other languages, with many different tenses, but the concept of tenses in other languages is something to be wrestled with as it is not always intuitive or structured the same as in English.

A much bigger deal though is the concept of the ‘sense’ of a noun.  At least with tenses, we understand the difference between the past and future tense, a perfect or an imperfect tense.  But our nouns are usually unchanging, no matter how they are used in a sentence.  We build the meaning of a sentence based on the word order.

For example, the two clauses ‘John shot Bill’ and ‘Bill shot John’ clearly mean very different things, and we know who was shot based on the order of the words.  If we want to say the name of the person shot first, and the name of the shooter second, we have to add extra words – ‘John shot Bill’ and ‘John was shot by Bill’ give us the two meanings without changing the names of the two people.

But most other languages are less focused on the order of the words, and instead add different endings to the nouns to indicate their role.  For example, the ending ‘-a’ might mean ‘this is the person who is doing something’ and the ending ‘-en’ might mean ‘this is the person who had something done to them.  So, in that case, you could say ‘Johna shot Billen’ and ‘Johnen shot Billa’ and you know in each case who did the shooting and who was shot, by the endings rather than by the word order.

The example we just gave is a very simple example.  There can be as many as six different senses for nouns (well, actually, some languages such as Finnish have a dozen or more!), and different endings not only for each different sense (they are officially known as ‘cases’) but also for if the noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, and also for if it is singular, slightly plural, or very plural.  How many different possible endings is that for a noun?  The answer is ‘Way too many’ and with us not having an instinctive sense of such things, it can get terribly confusing.

Oh – if you do end up needing to wrestle with cases and noun endings, here’s a trick.  Speak the first part of the noun clearly, and then just mutter the ending.  Many native speakers will automatically ‘hear’ what you said as if you said it correctly.  And, in using this trick, you’ll be doing the same thing that many of the locals do, too – even they often have difficulty with matching endings and cases for nouns.


There are two elements to pronunciation.  The first is whether the foreign language uses similar sounds in similar ways to English or not.

Many do, but some are very different.  Some languages place great importance on the stress in each word, others less so.  And some languages not only have basic pronunciation issues, but also pitch issues too – rising tones, falling tones, steady tones, and so on (eg Mandarin).

Clearly, the easier a language is in its sounds to English, the easier it will be to speak it clearly and be understood by the locals.

The other element of pronunciation is whether you can guess at how a word is pronounced by simply seeing it written down.  Some languages are excellent at being ‘self pronouncing’ and you can usually work out how to say the word simply by seeing it written.  This is actually one of the huge problems for people learning English – due to the mixed roots of English, there is no rhyme nor reason to how English words are pronounced, with the much-loved example being the made up word ‘ghoti’ – how would you pronounce that word?  There are of course lots of answers, but the one which confounds people is when you say ‘Well, actually, you could also pronounce it as “fish”‘!

A self pronouncing language is much easier to learn.

A slightly related point is that of dialects.  If you are learning a self-pronouncing language, it probably has less of a range of dialects, due to the self-pronouncing rules more or less forcing people to say words the same way.  But if it is a more free-form language, be sure you are learning an appropriate dialect, and that you can also understand other dialects you might encounter.  (This is another challenge for English students – imagine trying to learn how to understand someone from the Deep South and also someone from the Scottish Highlands both as part of one single language.)

Translation Programs, Dictionaries, etc

These days there are amazingly clever translation programs, available either as computer programs or as internet based applications (most notably Google Translate) that will translate not just single words but entire sentences and paragraphs and complete documents from one of many different languages and to another of many different languages.

But as good as these programs and automatic ‘machine translators’ are, they are far from perfect, and while much of what they translate reads clearly and appropriately, if you start to use special terms, words, and phrases, they may colossally fail.  If you are translating from a foreign language to your own language, you’ll usually notice the failures when they occur, but if you are translating in the opposite direction, you’ll have no idea if what you are ending up with is sensible or nonsense.

Furthermore, these programs increasingly rely on the internet and distributed/cloud computing.  In an EOTWAWKI scenario, such resources will probably be absent – and might not be available to you while on the street in a foreign city, even now.

These services can help, but they will not make you self-sufficient.  They might help with emergencies and when you have time to read and write replies, but they are no good for interactive conversations, real-time, face to face.

Subtle Problems as well as Obvious Problems if You Don’t Speak the Local Language

As you may have realized from your own possible impressions in the past when reacting to a foreigner who can’t speak English here, when a person is confronted with someone who doesn’t know the local language, there is more a feeling of alienation and a temptation to view the person as stupid, just because they can’t speak the language well, rather than a feeling of sympathy and support and admiration for the fact they can at least speak a few words of English.

You may have also felt frustrated and annoyed – ‘Why can’t this guy speak better English, and understand what I say?’ you might think.  ‘He has come to my country and is trying to deal with me, why is he so lazy/stupid as to not speak better English?’

Assuming such people are stupid is almost always a very incorrect assumption to make, but human nature being what it is, you would suffer it yourself if you went somewhere where you were not able to speak the language well.

Furthermore, it is not only harder to integrate into a foreign culture and society without speaking their language, but by not so integrating, you stamp yourself as ‘one of them’ rather than ‘one of us’, causing you to be much more the focus of exploitation and rip-off schemes.

The more disadvantaged the country to start with, the more you will be spotted as a target for exploitation.  If you can at least speak the local language, you’ll neutralize some of that prejudice/opportunism, and you’ll also be better keyed in to what is happening around you.  It has happened to us – particularly in the US but also in other countries, where people within earshot assume we’d not understand what they are saying (in some foreign language), and so they have spoken about us, in front of us, and it has amused us greatly to understand what they are saying.  Whether or not we choose to reveal our comprehension depends on the situation – sometimes it can be good to pretend to be ignorant.

There are also safety and related issues.  For example, if you are about to take a train from one station to the other, and hear an announcement over the PA system but don’t understand what it said, and then notice people starting to leave the platform, you wonder ‘Was that announcement telling us the train would be delayed, or cancelled, or shifted to another platform, or that there’s a bomb scare, or what???’.  Such puzzlements and frustrations happen a dozen times every day when you’re in a foreign country and not speaking its language.

You are also reliant on translators/interpreters to help you in your business and life interactions.  Quite apart from the cost of hiring such people, it is a difficult situation to be in – on the one hand, your ability to understand nuances and to finesse negotiations will be totally destroyed and lacking, and on the other hand, you may find that ‘your’ interpreter gangs up on you and allies him/herself with the other side in negotiations.

Problems with Interpreters

From our own experiences traveling, doing business, and living in very foreign countries where English is little spoken, we’ve sometimes found ourselves trapped with interpreters that would do the classic thing of first the other person would speak for several minutes in the foreign language, then the interpreter would briefly chat with them in the foreign language, then after all of that, the interpreter would say to us a single sentence.  What was everything else the other person said?  We had no way of knowing.  Knowing that we were getting a very filtered and summary-only version of what the other person was telling us would be a great frustration.

The exact opposite can also happen.  We’d rattle off a very eloquent commentary and then pause for the translator/interpreter to repeat it in the foreign language, only to hear our minute or two of monolog reduced to half a dozen brief words.  We’d say ‘We are very pleased to accept your much valued order for 1,000 of our finest quality widgets.  Unfortunately, due to the massive growth in global interest in our widgets, our production lead times are extending, and we would have difficulty meeting the delivery schedule you are requesting.  Can we possibly extend the leadtime to get our product to you by an extra few weeks?’.  The interpreter would translate ‘They can’t produce them for you.  You will have to wait.’

What happened to our eloquence, our flowery statements, and everything else?  All thrown out the window by a lazy interpreter.

Or else, we’ve had interpreters who were almost impossible for us to understand.  We couldn’t tell if the other person was saying ‘Yes, I love your deal’ to us or ‘No, I’m insulted by your low-ball offer’.  Truly.  We went through several negotiations with no idea if we were agreeing or disagreeing, and what it was we were or were not reaching agreement about.

The next problem is when the person you are wanting to negotiate with says to your interpreter, in their shared native language ‘Look, you and I are both (whatever nationality); we need to help ourselves.  That guy is a wealthy American, help me to get a good deal from him’.  And before you know where you are, the interpreter is actually working for the other person rather than for you, either out of a sense of national solidarity, or to protect their future opportunities translating for the company, or as a result of an out-and-out bribe.  As well as passing on your official comments, the interpreter will also be saying things like ‘I think he is prepared to pay more’ or whatever other helpful information they can.

We’ve also had interpreters who have simply refused to pass on our comments to the person we wanted them passed to.  When we have wanted to express something in strong terms, as one equal to the other, the interpreter, as a socially ‘inferior’ person, has not felt able to say the things to the other person that we wanted them to say on our behalf, because it might appear disrespectful.  So we might say ‘That is a ridiculous low offer, and outrageously unfair terms.  Unless you’re prepared to double your offer and give us a 50% deposit right now and the balance before we deliver, we’re ending the negotiation’.  The interpreter would say ‘My client appreciates your kind offer but wonders if you could slightly increase it and make a small deposit before my client ships you the goods’.  By the interpreter being submissive, you are judged to be weak and submissive too.

Which leads to a very important point.  You will be judged by your interpreter.  An incompetent interpreter, a poorly dressed one, or an interpreter with ‘image problems’ of any other sort will result in the other person attaching similar attributes to you, too.

The Spread of English

This Wikipedia page lists countries by the percentage and total number of English speakers.  We feel that in almost every case, their figures understate the level of English that is spoken – in part because the growth of English as a second language is increasing and these numbers are often five or even ten years out of date.  A lot has happened in that time (ie the growth of the internet where English still dominates).

So the information is pessimistic rather than optimistic.

On the other hand, you should also appreciate that within any given country, there are huge shifts in where and how common English-speaking ability is.  Typically the larger and more prosperous cities will have many more English speakers than the smaller and less prosperous country towns.  A country that boasts a 50% English-speaking rate might have 65% in its big cities but only 10% in its villages.  And/or it might have 90% of its school children speaking English, but only 10% of the adults you’ll be dealing with who can speak it.  Or possibly the level of English fluency to qualify as an English speaker might be very lax – you’ll find people who ostensibly can speak English, but who you can’t understand and who can’t understand you.

There’s another consideration to also keep in mind.  If a massive societal breakdown occurs in the US and possibly elsewhere in the predominantly English-speaking world, English might lose its primacy of place as the global language.  For countries that don’t yet have a clear commitment to supporting English as a second language, English could very quickly be discarded, and you might find yourself in a country that abandons English and instead turns to some other language more representative of the changed geo-political nature of the world in a Level 3 situation; or a country which simply becomes much more inward looking and gives up on all foreign language learning entirely.

Similar things have happened to us, for that matter, too.  Second language choices go in and out of fashion.  For a while, it was common to learn French, or German, or Russian, or Japanese.  Nowadays, it is more common to learn Spanish or Chinese.  Maybe in a decade, Arabic and Indian (Hindi) will be the new dominant languages – not just for us in the US, but for other people in other countries too.


Assuming you don’t already speak the native language, we suggest that the higher the incidence of English being spoken, the more suitable a foreign country may be as an international bug-out.

Not only is it much easier for you in such a case, but the greater the level of English that is spoken, then – as a very rough approximation – the more outward looking the society and the more ‘connected’ it is to the world in general and the less out of place you’ll seem.

However, you should also consider this as a first step only.  For true integration into another country and acceptance by its citizens, and to be able to live effectively and comfortably, it is essential that you learn the local language as quickly as possible.

There is another dimension to foreign languages.  Some are easier to learn than others.  If you are moving somewhere foreign, consider also how difficult it will be for you to learn the local language, because no matter how high the level of English may be that is spoken there, the better you can integrate yourself into the local society (ie by speaking their language) the more the local society will accept you as a member, and change from looking at you as a foreigner to be exploited and instead looking upon you protectively as ‘one of them’, if not by birth, at least by adoption.


David Spero[suffusion-the-author display='description']

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