Folium: How to Get By in a Foreign Country When You Don’t Speak the Language via Lifehacker

Folium: How to Get By in a Foreign Country When You Don't Speak the Language via Lifehacker

Folium: How to Get By in a Foreign Country When You Don’t Speak the Language via Lifehacker


The term “ugly American” is well known throughout Europe and perhaps in other countries around the world.  So what is an ugly American?  Urban Dictionary provides the following definition: “The tendency of American tourists visiting foreign countries to completely insult the culture of those countries, almost always accidentally.”  Unfortunately, Americans are historically not well traveled.  In 1974 only about 3 percent of Americans had passports.  Today it is estimated that about 42 percent of Americans have passports.  This may seem like a great step in the right direction, but in reality it is quite misleading.  All of these passports yield only about 3.5 percent of Americans traveling overseas.

Pointing can be useful than speaking!

Pointing can be more useful than speaking!

There are many theories on why so few Americans travel, especially in comparison to Europeans. It is of course expensive and time consuming to travel.  One positive argument is that the U.S. has so much diversity that people do not feel the need to travel.  On the other side,  some say the number reflects the skepticism, ignorance and/or lack of interest about foreign countries. I know from my own experience that even those with money and time do not necessarily travel abroad.  In my own affluent community I have been shocked over the years about how few of my classmates travel outside of the country – with the exception of visits to the beaches of the Caribbean.  My own small sample leads me to believe that the worst is true about why Americans do not travel abroad.  Rick Steves, a well-known travel writer believes many Americans are simply ethnocentric.  So why is this?  It seems to me that it starts when we are young, first at home and then in school.  Because most Americans who are parents raising young children now have not themselves traveled, they do not have much to pass on to their children.  Nor, perhaps do they see the importance of encouraging this type of learning.  With respect to schools, I do not believe we do a good enough job in the United States educating students about the world around them.  According to Terry Garcia, an executive vice president at National Geographic, one problem in the United States schools do not consistently teach geography beyond the 7th grade. If students cannot even point to a country on a map, why would they ever visit it?

Etiquette and Courtesy Will Save You a Lot of Trouble

Etiquette and Courtesy Will Save You a Lot of Trouble

Once we get to the Americans who do actually venture abroad we reach the many ugly Americans. For me, they are the ones who expect everyone in other countries to speak English.  Granted, it is difficult to travel to a foreign country where you do not speak a word of the language.  But the people in these countries find it incredibly offensive that they are expected to speak English, despite the fact that many of them speak at least a little bit.  In the United States, most of us cannot even imagine a tourist coming up to us and saying something in a foreign language. Foreigners who travel to the United States are expected to speak English.  Perhaps Spanish speakers can get by in some parts of the country, but beyond that it is a pretty risky proposition.  It is not surprising then that people from other countries have some expectation that Americans will at least try to speak a little bit of their languages.  Instead what I have seen is Americans speaking louder when they travel abroad with the hope that the person with whom they are speaking to is just hard of hearing.  And perhaps the Urban Dictionary definition is correct that this behavior is usually accidental.  But if so, what does it say about us that we do not even realize that this behavior is offensive?

I hope that at some point, Americans get with the program and open their eyes to all that the world has to offer.  If people have the time and money to travel, they owe it to themselves and the rest of the country to go out and learn and pay it forward to young people who perhaps cannot travel now, but may have that chance in the future.

Morgan Solender
LEAF Contributor