I know learning basic phrases always helps in a non English speaking country, but I am wondering if I should learn more. Do most people speak english in: Barcelona, Berner Oberland, Normandy and Paris? Thanks!!
People who work the tourist areas are capable of understanding several languages with English being the most popular. As you move further away from tourist area, especially the country side, you will find less English but generally someone will speak a little English. But expanding your skills will always benefit you.
I don't know about all those places mentioned but i can speak about Paris and Normandy - in tourist establishments (hotels, monuments, museums, etc.) there is a lot of English spoken but don't expect to find this everywhere. It's rude to just launch into English conversation as if you naturally expect to be understood. It's always best to try a few words in French or to ask (in French) if someone speaks Engish.
When Kira typed about when one wants to try out their "language chops," it reminded me of the funny airport moment in Paris. As we landed , I was well-practiced and ready to greet my first French person. Customs/passport check went like a breeze. Then it was time to check directions for the shuttle stop, so we approached a Delta rep with (in French) Good day madam, do you speak English? In a very direct, close-to-annoyed manner, she responded with a thick New York accent: "WHAT do you want?" (We were shocked and chuckled.) I should have responded that I really wanted her to be a charming French person. Agree with previous posters that in the larger, more touristy cities and villages, English is pretty common...........but also agree to begin all conversations with greetings in the local language (even if you don't pronounce it perfectly, they will still appreciate your trying).......unless, of course, it is that same Delta representative.
Everyone's advice is pretty solid so far. In the more-tourist-frequented areas of all those places, people in service-type jobs will generally speak at least some English. But I wouldn't go anywhere without memorizing (and I don't mean "have dogeared in the phrase book" I mean memorized!) these phrases in the language of the region you're going to: Hello Excuse me I'm sorry Please Do you speak English? I don't speak "___" Yes/No Thank you
Goodbye It's really not that difficult, you probably already know a few of these in French and Spanish, non? With these phrases you show yourself to be making an effort and not assuming everyone around you will speak English. I cannot understand why so many English-speaking tourists run through the Metro or Bahnhof shouting "Excuse me!" At least bother to shout in a language where you know you'll be understood! In many places (although I don't really know if this applies to France) the younger a person, the better chance there is of them speaking English. If you need help in English, look for someone under 30. And even if you ask someone if they speak English and they say no, you'll be amazed how much can be communicated through a few shared words and pantomime.
To Sarah's points, I would say anyone under 60 but also the additional essential phrase One..more...beer/wiine...please!
I was in Barcelona last week, and I would say even in touristy areas there is some but not a lot of English spoken. Even when I took a taxi to my hotel from the airport, I had to write the name of the hotel down because he couldn't understand where I wanted to go (I was staying at Hotel 1898, so the numbers aren't the same in Spanish as English). Likewise, when I went to buy a recharger for my camera battery, I looked up the Spanish words for "battery charger" the night before and wrote them down, so I could ask for what I was looking for. Still, I found I could get by with about a dozen words in Spanish or Catalan for 80% of what I needed, and so many words are close to the same.
It's always best to learn as much as you can of the language that's spoken in the countries you'll be visiting. That being said, touristy places do generally have staff that can understand and converse (or transact business) in at least decent English. And THAT being said, I wouldn't count on it - and I would advise that you never just launch into a request or query in Engllish. Start with "excuse me ma'am but can you tell me" or "where can I find?" or whatever in the local language. We bought a $10 hand-held translator a year or so ago - it translates 5000 English words (taxi, gym, restaurant, supermarket, hospital, ambulance, sweetbreads, police....) into 8 languages, and includes about 500 basic phrases ("Where is the bathroom?" etc.) in each language. It isn't an Apple product - you never have to plug it in - it fits in a pocket - it is simpler than carrying separate dictionaries - and it's been a life saver. In general, unless we're off the beaten track, when we start with an "excuse me" and a word or two of description in the local language, we find that someone nearby will nearly always jump in with English. This is sometimes a bit dispiriting, when you want to really try out your language chops!
I think sometimes the importance of phrase books or a few memorized phrases is over emphasized. Accents and pronunciations can render stock phrases unintelligible to foreign speakers. We were riding on a bus from our hotel in Brussels to the "Grand Place". We had been told the bus number by the English speakers at our hotel front desk. When we got on the bus, I told the bus driver, "grand place" in English pronunciation. He looked back blankly. We rode a few miles, looking for landmarks (we had been there earlier in the day). He looked at me again, questioningly. "Grand Place", I said. Again he looked blankly. Finally I wrote it down. "Oh," he said, "Grahn Plahce" and then showed us the stop to get off. I thought Grand Place was close to Grahn Plahce, but apparently not. Another story. I was in Freilassing, on my way to Hallstatt. My host asked me were I was going. I said, "Halstatt". He looked at me blankly for a few seconds, finally saying "Halstatt" with the 'A' sound more like the 'e' in the, and very short. I had said "Hahl stahtt", with long, tense As which didn't sound to him like anything he recognized. I had just finished a 3rd year college course in German phonetics, but how quickly I revert to Rick Steve pronunciation. So, it's important, when using phrases you don't understand, to learn correct pronunciation.
I have shared this story on the Helpline before, but I'm always reminded of it when the subject of speaking English comes up, and I continue to be amused by it. I was living in Germany at the time. I was shopping at a department store and was standing by the directory when an American couple approached and asked if I speak English. I said yes, and then spent several minutes chatting and showing them how to find what they wanted. I didn't think to tell them that I am American, too. I suppose I thought it was perfectly obvious from my southeastern US accent. When the conversation ended they thanked me, and as they turned away I heard the man say to his wife, "See? I TOLD you they all speak English here!" Left me standing there with my mouth open.
I'd recommend looking for basic language courses on tape or CD at your local library- for the sake of preventing mangled pronunciation. Thanks to that method I still remember how to say "Goodbye" in Hungarian (Viszontlátásra!) Though you can also find recordings of basic phrases online these days.
Speaking of online, google translate is actually pretty cool. It isn't complete yet (it is frustratingly NOT all that good for Danish, for instance), but for many languages you can type in a phrase, get the translation, AND get a clip of someone saying it!
In 2008 I just got off the "L" in Chicago when two men approached me. The elder gentleman asked "How do I get to Sayers Tower?" Sayers Tower? I'm thinking, Gale Sayers was loved in Chicago but I didn't think they would build a tower for him? Then I realized he meant the Sears Tower. Also, if you're looking for a way to improve your language "chops" look for a local speakers group. A co-worker of mine is part of a Portuguese Speaker Group. He gets to practice with native speakers and they also have dinners and field trips too.
The number one thing to know and say is "Do you speak English?" in the native language. To say it in English will start you off on the wrong foot. "Hello" and "Good by" and use them when entering/leaving a business establishment as if you were entering a home. (At least in France). The rest you'll figure out as needed.
I've been to the last three locations. Kandersteg, (Berner Oberland), was the least English friendly. The fluent German speakers in our group had to intercede for the less-fluent German speakers quite a few times.
I am in Istanbul and just about all the store/restaurants speak english. I do not know any Turkish words at the present time. Last night had dinner in the old town at a RS recommended restaurant and the food was delicious. Thus far rain won't go away making walking difficult.
The funny thing is that there are natives of Germany who can't understand the dialects spoken in Switzerland. For a non-native speaker of High German, I could barely catch a word on my last trip to the Swiss Alps.
I think beyond learning all these phrases (which is great if you can remember them) is to be polite, respectful and patient while dealing with language barriers. A smile and friendly attitude can go a long way. I know a bit of Spanish, and use it if I can, but there are so many things I am worrying about while traveling (am I lost, do I have the correct currency, where are the bathrooms,) and I have often found myself saying 'hello' in the wrong language, or saying 'goodbye' instead of thank you... for some of us who travel to lots of different countries it just might be best to speak english and apologize for not knowing their language. When I do speak my few words of Spanish (which must sound okay) they answer me in Spanish, so then I am back at square one...not understanding. I don't expect everyone to speak english, I just hope for patience on their end as we struggle to understand each other. I do wish I spoke lots of languages, but don't intend to stay home just because I don't.
I'll just add that it's really no big deal if you encounter people that don't speak English. You'll be amazed at what some gestures, pointing and patience will produce. Just know basic greetings, thank you, "do you speak English" and be polite and you'll be just fine. Often train ticket salespeople do not speak English well so write down your train number, destination and time so there is no mis-communication. Also, know that people in Barcelona speak Catalan most will understand some Spanish. But as a rule their first language is not Spanish.
@Douglas I believe that virtually all Catalan speakers are bilingual in Castilian Spanish. Although I'm sure there are some who avoid speaking Castilian out of nationalistic reasons. On a related note, saying "Guten Tag" and "Danke shoen" in Switzerland won't win you any points, since Standard German is a foreign language there (except in written form).
"Guten Tag" and "Danke shoen" I say Gruetzi (sp) but I have never seen anybody turn their noses up at "Guten Tag" or "Danke shoen" . People are people and like the common courtesies. Any attempt is well received.
Of course they speak German in Switzerland, it just sounds completely different than the German spoken in Berlin or Cologne or in Austria. They may also speak Italian or French depending on the Canton you are in.
Re: Standard German in Switzerland- I went to the movies once in Luzern. I asked for a ticket in my poorly enunciated German that might have passed for a Swiss dialect. The ticket seller then spouted some gibberish (i.e., her dialect). I said, "Wie bitte?" She then rolled her eyes and asked in Standard German if I wanted a ticket in the front, middle, or back.
As many of the posters stated, most tourist areas will have some degree of English spoken. If they say no, just attempt your pathetic spanish (or french, german,etc.) and they'll realize that their English is better than your local language, and switch. Of course, if they don't speak it, then you're on your own. I've found that Pimsleur CDs (available at your local library, usually) are really helpful and can get you through most tourist situations. While I generally spend the year before a trip learning the language of the country that I'll be visiting, my wife doesn't share this interest, so she'll just learn the pleasantries (Do you speak English?,hello, goodbye, thank you, I'm sorry, how much does this cost, etc.) and she is well received. Please, just ask them if they speak English in their own language, not in yours.
Austrian standard German, the German you hear on Austrian radio and TV news programs, is the closest to the Swiss German on like broadcasts. Yes, Cologne is in its own dialect category. Northern Germans, ie., north of the Main, have told me that while Swiss dialects are totally incomprehensible to them, most of the Austrian dialects are not, unless those from the rural areas of Vorarlberg and Tirol.
English is not that commonly spoken in Spain, even in the major cities. The Spanish, in general, do not travel as much in the rest of Europe as some other Europeans. That said, most waiters and restaurant staff in the tourist areas will speak a little English and it is not uncommon for a menu to be in several languages - usually English, Spanish and German. The Spanish generally welcome any attempt, no matter how mangling of their language, to speak Spanish and are by nature very friendly and relaxed.
Language mess ups can be the best remembered experiences. 1. At a hotel in San Gimignano, Italy, I had asked about English and then German when I entered the hotel. No. The person at the desk suggested French. I had just came from France, so I requested and got a room in French. For the rest of our stay, the hotel and restaurant staff spoke to us in French. We knew neither enough French nor Italian to tell them that they might as well be speaking their native tongue. We had become the French speaking couple in room 35. 2. I was staying at a hotel in Schwangau. An Englishman came in to ask about a room. First, I learned that the owner, to whom I had been speaking wretched German, spoke near flawless English. The English gentleman decided not to stay and left. A German family sat at the next table. They had come in after I ordered, not hearing my terrible German. The man turned to me , indicated the departing Brit and said "Verrückter Amerikaner." (Crazy American.) I had to answered, "Nein, er ist ein Brit. Ich bin ein verrückter Amerikaner." (No, he is a Brit. I am a crazy American.) The owner left the room with her hand over her mouth laughing. Only embarrassing silence was left. Learn a few phrases as mentioned above. Keep your sense of humor, especially about yourself. All will likely work out.
If I had been in your situation in Luzern, I would have said exactly the same thing, Will, regardless of her reaction to Hochdeutsch.
We just returned from France where we stayed in Paris and Vence, near Nice. RS has put it nicely. The French pride themselves on their language and wish to speak it perfectly, preferring not to hear it misspoken. At the same time, we learned that the school system requires 8 years of English. There seems to be a gap since we got different verbal and non verbal messages when asking if English was spoken. We always began in French with an apology for speaking badly. That loosened things up and we almost always understandable English in Paris. It was more variable in Vence and we used more French there than in Paris. At very, very best, my wife
needed help from a grocery clerk who spoke no English while my wife was very rusty on French. Much sign language, gesturing, drawing and the like was successful. There's more than one way to communicate. See Rick Steves description of communication at the post office using flapping of the arms.
I am NOT an expert on European travel but have just returned from my 39th pleasure trip to that wonderful continent. In September we did Madrid, Segovia, Salamanca, Toledo, La Mancha country etc. I was stunned by the few people that we met this year that actually spoke good English. From past trips I thought I had figured it out. Tourist related folks would speak English, city folks for the most part also - younger people the most likely - older, country people would be the least likely. My new conclusion is to not worry about it but be prepared for an occasional challenge. The absolute bottom line is that the great, great majority of Europeans are really nice people and will help you out in any way they can. France gets a bad rap, but have been there perhaps six or seven times and have found them to be most charming and courteous even when your knowledge of their language is just about nil. We travel on our own usually by car - the number of problems we have had with respect to communication are pretty few and far between. Have we been frustrated from time to time? Of course. We just chalk it up to being part of that wonderful human experience: travel.
Many years ago, I was staying at a small hotel in Paris where the clerks spoke no English. Luckily, I spoke enough French to get by. It was also the kind of place where you left your key when you went out. One day, I return and go to the desk to get my key. The clerk asked if I spoke English. I said yes and he asked if I could help the couple on the other side of the lobby. They needed directions to the Louvre and spoke no French. Not a problem as I was familiar with Paris. They were from Texas, hat and all. I grabbed one of the free maps and showed them the numerous walks they could take. (They were afraid of the metro.). After answering their questions, the wife turned to me and said: "I couldn't understand one word that desk guy said but I understood everything you said." "There's a reason for that," I said. "I'm an American." The couple looked at me completely flabbergasted and blurted out "But you spoke French?"
Some of us do... Another trip, I was taking a late night stroll and decided to get a chocolate crepe from a sidewalk vendor. A young man walks up after me, buys a crepe, and starts a conversation. Immediately, I ask him to slow down as I speak better than I understand. "British," he asks. "No," I say, "American." "Ahh," he says. "May I practice my English with you." We had a short conversation, in English, where he literally had questions about English usage, grammar and slang. And I taught him a couple of new curse words. At least new to him. Today, most people working with tourists in the areas you mention will speak some English as it is now the most common second language. However, as stated, it's polite to learn a few words in the native tongue. At least to start out.