The English Speakers: A Short Play
Stage: Gili Air, a tiny island near Bali.
Scene: Alice and Andrew are negotiating with a tour boat operator for a snorkelling trip.
Tour boat operator: The cost is 100,000 Rupiah each.
Alice: (looks at Andrew) Let’s go away and talk about it and decide.
(Walk off to the side of the stage)
Andrew: That sounds good to me.
Alice: Me too.
Andrew: OK, shall we ask for 80,000?
Alice: Sure, but 100,000 is fine too.
In Southeast Asia, you’ll negotiate with locals for something every single day. More likely than not, they will speak English, and chances are good that they will understand almost everything you might want to say to your travel partner. That’s great if you want to do business, because you don’t have to learn a new language to communicate with locals.
But the downside of everyone speaking English is that when you’re a native English speaker negotiating with a local merchant, and you want to communicate privately with your travel partner/spouse, you can’t just say, “This is half the price of the other shop; let’s see if we can get her down lower,” or, “Let’s shop around and see if we can get a better rate elsewhere.” If you want to communicate in private, you have to go somewhere else.
Speakers of other languages have it easier. Imagine you’re German, with your German spouse, and you’re in Vietnam, and you are negotiating in English to rent a motorcycle for the day. At any point, you can switch to German and talk amongst yourselves without the Vietnamese shopkeeper understanding you; likewise, the Vietnamese shopkeeper can tell his wife, “These guys are pushovers, let’s take every cent they have” without the Germans understanding. Both sides can communicate on a secret channel in front of the other side.
But if two Americans are negotiating with a Cambodian in English, the Americans probably can’t just switch to another language for privacy, because they are Americans, and our foreign language acquisition rates are abysmal, and they probably don’t know any other languages. They are negotiating with a distinct disadvantage.
There are four solutions I can think of, three of which we’ve tried.
First, as above, you can just go elsewhere to talk, out of hearing of the other party, then come back to the bargaining table. But that’s reasonable and straightforward, and doesn’t excite my adventurous instincts.
Second, you can try to speak Pig Latin. Apparently this is mostly an American thing, though; if I spoke actual Latin, Alice would understand most of what I said, I think, but as a product of a prestigious private education, Pig Latin is very difficult for her to understand. So that doesn’t work.
Third, you can figure out secret codes with your partner. Alice and I have a plush rabbit named Eloise, who is a businessrabbit from San Francisco; she is aggressive and canny and sharp, eats vegan, loves carrots, is very good with numbers, and curses a lot. Don’t get me started on the plush giraffes or penguin we have – Jenny, Jeremy, Fitzgerald, Floppity, Penny, and Ernest – all of whom have their own personalities. I guess this is what you do when you don’t have kids? Anyway, we’ve started referring to her in our conversations – “Eloise wouldn’t like it,” or “Eloise would say yes.” We learned that Queen Elizabeth II will rub her hands together when she wants her staff to extricate her from a conversation without giving offence to the other person, so sometimes we do that if we want to leave. But this is an incomplete language, and can be subject to misinterpretation.
The fourth, and the most romantic, solution: if you are a native English speaker traveling with someone else, you should always learn another language before traveling – but NOT the language that is spoken in the country you are visiting. You can reasonably expect that you will be able to get by in English wherever you go, but you will also have a secret language to communicate in if you absolutely need to.
In choosing this language, consider the following:
- It should be obscure enough that the other party probably won’t understand it. This rules out Mandarin, Russian, French, Spanish, and German, as these are spoken frequently by people in the tourist industry.
- Ideally, the language should be close enough to some other languages that you’d be able to get by in other contexts or settings. For example, Swahili isn’t close enough to Spanish to allow you to feel your way through Madrid, but Italian and Spanish are close enough that an Italian speaker might be able to figure out signs or menus in Spanish (if need be).
Based on these requirements, I propose Romanian as the default best language for English speakers to learn for negotiating in other countries. It is obscure enough that most people, hearing it, probably won’t understand a word you’re saying, so you can communicate with your partner. It is also a Romance language, so you can likely travel through Latin America or Southern Europe and be able to at least read menus, signs, and maybe even newspapers.
Alternately, as Alice suggested, I could have just said, “Let’s go away and think about it and then make a decision.” But that’s just a bit too practical, don’t you think?