Athens, Greece – The Universal Language – by Allison Brennhofer. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

Athens, Greece – The Universal Language – by Allison Brennhofer. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

Three friends and I traveled to Athens, Greece. It was an amazing trip, in my opinion. The weather was not the best but I have dreamed about visiting Greece since I was a child, so I viewed the entire trip through rose colored glasses. We saw the Acropolis and various other ruins and sites that blew me away. The sheer amount of history held in one city is astounding to me. I also grew up reading Greek myths and legends, so it was a little unreal to be able to see these temples and places dedicated to the gods and goddesses.

None of us speak Greek. However, that was never an issue. I had been a little nervous about the language barrier, but the city was incredibly easy to navigate without knowing Greek. We either walked or took the metro everywhere. All of the signs and stop names were listed in Greek and English. All of the sites that we visited, such as the Acropolis and Hadrian’s Library, had signs and plaques in English as well as Greek.

[A sign with Greek and English words]

We stayed in an Airbnb, which allowed us to stay in a residential neighborhood. It was a ten minute walk south of the Acropolis, which was a phenomenal location. Even in this less touristy location, many of the restaurants we went to had English translations on their menus. Most of the servers spoke English, which helped when we had questions about what certain foods were.

[The Old Temple at the Acropolis]

My point here is that I had not realized how we are both lucky and unlucky that so many people speak our language across the world. Lucky, because it takes a lot of the stress out of traveling to other countries. It may not sound that difficult when you live in an English speaking country, but when I was actually confronted with a few Greek people who did not speak English, it was a huge obstacle. I was frustrated at first, but at myself more than anything. I had no right to be annoyed a Greek person did not speak English. If anything, I would understand if the Greek people were annoyed at these tourists that show up and expect to be catered to. I think it is also a little unlucky that our language is so universal. It enables our laziness as a country in language proficiency. I took French from seventh grade to eleventh grade. As soon as I figured out I was going to CSS, which only carries a three year language requirement, I dropped French my senior year. While I certainly was not bad, I was not great at it. And I am the person who does not like to do things that do not come naturally to me (a great character flaw I am working on).

[In Athens, orange trees line the streets]

This casual assumption that I can travel most places around the world, at least to main cities, and find people who speak my language, is an incredibly privileged assumption. I am working on lessening my assumptions. I attempted to use my incredibly rusty French when I traveled there for Spring Break, which worked as a way to start the conversation. However, I am nowhere near good enough to carry a conversation on in French. I understand that Athens is a city that depends heavily on tourism for a source of revenue for their economy, which is a big part of why so many people speak English there. But we saw people of all nationalities visiting there at the same time as us. I highly doubt every Greek person speaks Mandarin, Russian, or Spanish, just to name a few other languages. Other tourists probably also speak English, but that just feeds back into the cycle where English is held up as the universal language. It certainly is a beneficial language to know, in a world where the United States is so a prominent player in world affairs. But with the growing number of speakers of other languages such as Spanish and Mandarin, it just struck me as incredibly selfish and self-absorbed to continue thinking English is the only language a person should know.

Allison serves as an editor for The North Star Reports.

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our abiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In three years we have published over 250 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our student editors and writers come from all parts of the campus, from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). This is done by an all volunteer staff. We have a frugal cash budget, and we donate much of our time and talent to this project. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Eleni Birhane and Matthew Breeze, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, with generous support from The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu

31 Comments

Filed under Allison Brennhofer, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

31 responses to “Athens, Greece – The Universal Language – by Allison Brennhofer. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

    • Greta

      Interesting article, Allison. I like how you talk about the universal languages as they are a ritual because people continue to learn other languages so we can have conversations and tell stories. We grow up in a place where we feel comfortable and safe. And learning to speak a new language can be a tough thing and take time. So when we travel and have the ability to communicate with others is a net thing because then we then have the ability to continue the rituals of learning other languages and telling stories of their personal experiences.

    • Paige Perreira

      Greece seems like such an interesting place! I can definitely relate to the feeling of privilege by assuming that other countries will know English. While many foreign countries do teach English, it’s important to remember that the world doesn’t revolve around the English language. I would be scared to travel to a country where English isn’t the first language, because communication is so important, and without it, I would probably get lost and in a whole bunch of trouble. You definitely lucked out by the fact that there was a lot of English where you were!

  1. Der Yang

    Hi Allison,
    I was just talking about the fear of international traveling concerning language barriers the other day with one of my professors. It is such a coincidence to read through your essay and understand your emotions stated above. I have never traveled abroad before so I have not experienced the frustration and amazement of culture shock or language difficulties. Despite that, communicating locally at certain restaurants or through phone conversations are even hard sometimes. The United States and Minnesota alone is such a diverse land that religions, traditions, and languages spread like fire. When this happens, all I hope for are people like you and me that are understanding and welcoming of other cultures and languages. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Matthew Breeze

    I appreciate that you took the time to write this article about our language and how it is everywhere. English is the universal language, the language of diplomacy, in our time as you point out. I like that you say this phenomenon is a good thing and a bad thing all at the same time. For those of us who speak english the benefits are obvious, but you point out that this often makes Americans speak only one language. I wish that there were more emphasis placed on learning another language in our country, and maybe there will be in time. Either way Greece and Athens sound amazing and I am glad you were able to see as much of the history as you could!

  3. Greece is somewhere I have always wanted to go, and it certainly looks amazing! I like how you said english being such a universal language enables our laziness as a country. There are many instances that people in the U.S. act in a fairly arrogant manner expecting others to cater to them. A lot of people in the U.S. grow up not being very cultured in general. Many kids in the U.S. grow up in a comfortable town with primarily caucasian people like themselves. We grow up naive to the many different cultures around the world. Unfortunately, this allows for some people grow up feeling entitled and not as accepting of different people.

  4. Caroline Grube

    I enjoyed reading this article. The title for me was a little misleading. I feel that this article was about two very different things: your trip to Greece and how English is a universal language that has benefits and drawbacks. This article would be much more effective if you had focused on one or the other. Stepping back from that, I enjoyed briefly hearing about your trip to Greece. I would also love to visit Greece and see the ancient temples and have some idea of what their rituals and habits looked like based off of the architecture. I also found your thoughts on English as a universal language very relatable. I have never traveled to a place where English is not the national language. So I have not personally experienced this phenomena. I do agree with you that it enables our laziness of learning different languages before traveling or our assumptions that everyone will be able to understand us when we go to a foreign country.

  5. Kalahan Larson

    I enjoyed the meaning behind this article. I liked the way you explained how we as Americans have grown to expect things, even when we don’t mean to do so. You are right, we are extremely lucky to be able to travel most places and have someone from there speak English. When people from other countries come here, they do not expect us to know the language that they are speaking, nor do they think anyone will. We are told in school that we should learn another language because it is a good hiring point on a resume and helps set you apart from others. So we only do this to make our applications look good (most of the time). We often lose this knowledge of another language very quickly after we stop taking classes, unless we have a real reason not to.

  6. Joel Scheuerlein

    Wow, this was a fantastic read. I to have traveled over seas, however not to Greece, but rather Germany. Like you I had rose goggles on, and no matter how bad the weather could have ever been, I would have loved it. I also was worried that I would not be able to communicate with the citizens, however I was relived when I found out the spoke English to. It also helped that I was with my cousin who lives in Germany and has spent his whole life in Germany, and could speak both perfect English and Spanish. It is amazing to think how common the English language is in foreign countries.

  7. Kathleen Reicher

    Thanks for sharing, Allison. I get very nervous about language barriers when I travel. It’s good to know that the signage in Greece is also in English. That’s a big help to travelers. Do a lot of people in Greece speak English as well as Greek? I should probably stop worrying about language barriers and do something about it, such as learning a bit about the language of the place I will be traveling to. Just knowing basic phrases can be very helpful in those situations where communication is tough. Knowing multiple languages is a great skill and not always an easy one. Leaning another language can be difficult, especially when you don’t get enough practice. I’m glad you were still able to enjoy your trip to Greece without knowing the language. Safe travels!

  8. What a fun trip! I enjoy how you wrote this about our language, it is handy that it is everywhere, yet it makes me wonder a lot of the times. Why are they learning to speak English? Why aren’t we pressured more to learn other languages? I am glad that your travels are going well!

  9. Nouqouja Yang

    Hi Allison,
    I really enjoyed reading your post because I didn’t think of that myself. I agree with you on how you mentioned that we are lucky to be in an English speaking country where it is easier to communicate around the world. I know how it feels to go somewhere where there is very little to no English speakers at all because I have visited China. It is very hard and you are basically lost if you get frustrated because of how hard it is to communicate. These experiences definitely opens up ones eyes and perspective on those who speaks English as a second language or struggles in the United States. It’s not something to be made fun of or taken for granted at all. Overall, this post was great and I really like how you acknowledged yourself and is trying to learn and improve positively!! Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts!

  10. Rachel Reicher

    Thank you for sharing your experience! It is very true that the U.S. is a prominent country in this world and it can be beneficial to know its English language. You did a great job of showing both perspectives from the English language. It is important to keep in mind those on the other end of a language barrier. What are they thinking? Not every person in he world can know every language but that also shows the uniqueness of places and people. That is where tradition and culture is preserved. English is one of the most complex languages and it can be a privilege to fluently speak it. Although there are positives and negatives to the English language, there will always be the opportunity to learn another language or translate so we are able to travel the world like you have done.

  11. Kalley Friederichs

    Alli, great post! That is very nice that everything is in English as well as Greek. This can make traveling a little bit less stressful and more time to enjoy what you’re there for. I like how you discussed the pros and cons of English being spoken around the world. One of my friends who is also studying abroad this semester is in Greece right now and I am living through her photos, as well as the ones you have posted. It looks amazing and I hope to travel there one day!

  12. Alexa Lee

    Allie, I feel like you have been in my World History class because this is something that we have talked about all semester. I remember one student’s chapter presentation and we were asked if there was a universal language. It was interesting because some people said architecture was a language, I said that money could be one, but someone actually did say English. I cringed because I knew it was true, a lot of people know English, but I also felt, for lack of a better word, ashamed. I felt ashamed for the exact points you brought up. It is convenient when everything is in my language, but that also means we are losing languages. We’ve talked about humans being universal and diverse, and I think language is something that encompasses that idea very well. I know that there are benefits to people speaking the same language because then more people can connect, but at what cost? I hope that we can find some way to communicate better, but still keep cultural traditions and languages alive.

  13. Emily Bugni

    Thank you for sharing your story. Many countries seem to have accommodations for those of us who speak English, which is a privilege. I believe this is because they have a large tourist community and the last thing a person wants to deal with is trying to translate every word they see while they are on vacation.The first time I ever traveled outside of the United States was when I went to Mexico. I was so nervous because I did not know spanish, but when I got there I found that I did not need to worry. All of the people who were working at the resort I had stayed at knew English perfectly well. Because of this I have always wondered why other countries consider those who speak English when it comes to signs and services, but the US does not consider them. Could this be because the United States has such a diverse population that it would be difficult to accommodate for every language?

  14. This is a very cool article, I enjoyed how you brought up the language barrier and how it is in fact a privilege to be able to go places and have others speaking our language. The ancient cites and ruins sound like they would be a blast to visit!! It must have been really cool to only live a 10 mile walk away from the Acropolis, it would be so awesome to be able wake up every morning living in a city that has been around for thousands of years!

  15. Sarah Plankers

    This article is wonderful in so many ways. First, I appreciate that you admit defeat and frustration with language because it is a difficult concept to grasp and learn, no matter where you are. Also, understanding how widespread English is around the world is shocking and incredible in my opinion. It’s an incredibly interesting thing to consider especially being an English speaker. All in all, traveling and seeing English everywhere is both a wonderful thing that makes life easier and topic of conversation when it comes to a dominating culture and language.

  16. Megan Bingham

    This is such an important fact to point out. English may be very common to us, but that doesn’t mean we should automatically expect other people in other countries to speak English as well. I have been very lucky that when i travel I go to a very very tourist favored area so that the citizens do know English, but realistically that isn’t fair. I should not go into their country and expect them to accommodate me. I should have learned their language out of respect to them. I am very thankful that I am not required to learn a new language to travel to a new country with a different culture because I do not think I would have ever gone on a trip like that. We humans can be very selfish. Thank you for sharing your story.

  17. Thomas Landgren

    Thank you for sharing more about your experiences studying abroad this semester! I agree with your main point that nowadays English has become more universal and it can be seen as a blessing and a curse. Overall I feel like English becoming more of a universal language is beneficial to all. What I mean is that it helps these economies based heavily on tourism to really relate to their clients and make transactions and other incidents go more smoothly. It also allows more people to actually go out and travel. I personally think that one of the number one fears of travelling is not knowing the language and that then leads to more trouble. I do think that it is sad that some people have become so lazy and rude that they expect everyone to know English. People should still make the effort in trying to learn some of the language because language is a huge part of the culture and experience. Great Article!

  18. Sheila Iteghete

    I for one would not mind a trip to Greece because I would want to learn what amazing infrastructure they had thus the weather that may have or may not have inspired the Greek Philosophers. Knowing that they have the signs in both English and Greek was very helpful and I just can think of any other way to let the visitors of Greece to feel inclusive. Why did they do that and allow only those with the knowledge of their history and those who can speak/understand Greek experience this wonderful opportunity. English, although being very universal to an extent, is very difficult and claiming it as a language when it breaks all the rules it creates just does not seem right when compared to other languages. It is also great to acknowledge that you have a flaw because we all do, but it helps you to work on changing that habit.

  19. Isabella Restrepo-Toro

    I am really glad you went to Greece, I can´t imagine how amazing the opportunity of being there was. I would have freaked out if I had seen the temples of the Greek deities as I have always been fascinated by them and the huge amount of human qualities they possessed even if they were taken to extremes. I understand what you feel about language to a certain extent as I am bilingual. I understand how easy it is when you know English to travel the world and be understood by others, as after all English is “the universal language” and therefore more people in the world know how to speak it. By knowing English I feel like in a way I have made myself more available to the world. By knowing Spanish and English, I think that I would be able to communicate to at least the most minimum level in most places of the world, or I would be able to be understood as most people talk one of these two languages. I must say I appreciate your thought about it being unfair for others to have to adapt to you instead of the other way around, as this is the case with most (not all) english speaking individuals.
    This reminds me that the world is connected in more ways that we think are imaginable, and that no matter the place we are in, we are social beings and communicating, no matter the means, is always crucial.

  20. Mariah Koenig

    In this article, I really like how you point out that English being so universal enables our country’s laziness. It seems like many americans, when traveling, expect others to accommodate us, becuase they are the guests. We don’t generally try to learn basic parts about a language in a country we will travel to, we expect there to be something at our destination which will make that translation for us. At the same time, it is kind of cool to be part of a culture that the world knows so well and is willing to make accommodations for. I find it interesting how even in our country where languages other than English, such as Spanish and Arabic, are prevalent, we don’t have accommodations at big landmarks and travel destinations in our country for them. We expect them to learn our language. In class, we talked about how humans are contradictory and complex, and I think this really shows it. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Elaina Wald

    Right away upon reading about how almost everything was written in Greek and English I found myself a little annoyed. It seems you and I share a similar view on the general pushiness of the English language. It almost devalues the sense of adventure or newness of a place when it has been dominated by English-speaking tourists. This is not to say that cities should not reap the benefits of tourism or that citizens can’t learn English. It just seems that it indeed plays into laziness. Despite all this, Greece looks fantastic! Thank you for sharing Allie!

  22. Andrew Bailey

    Allison, I completely agree with the conclusions you have drawn about english being a global language that other nations usually adapt. I think it really comes down to consumerism. Most people from the United States have the resources to travel the world, therefore, other nations learn english so that they attract U.S. tourists. It is extremely hard to travel in a country where english is not the first language, but when employees at restaurants and hotels speak English, it makes traveling a little bit easier. I have experienced this traveling through Canada. It also makes that business more attractive. If someone recommends a restaurant in Paris, France where the employees speak French and English, it is more likely you will go there.

  23. Hattie Meyer

    Thank you for sharing apart of your trip to Greece. I have always dreamed of going there as well since I was little. It is true that when Americans travel we seem to have accommodations across the globe when it comes to language. As an ASL minor I have learned and understand the struggle you experienced when trying to communicate with someone that doesn’t speak the same language. I feel that you could have focused more on not how Americans are so lazy but how it truly felt to be placed in another persons shoes. It isn’t easy and can be very frustrating and some people experience that every day. I loved the connections you made tho. Have fun!

  24. Allie, you drew a very legitimate conclusion here. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us all. You are one-hundred percent correct, English speakers should not be so entitled and selfish with their language, but should aim to learn other languages as well. It is not difficult to see the benefits of learning other languages, so why is it that many people in the U.S. who speak English as their only language do not think it important? My friends and I were booking trains and hostels in Amsterdam for a trip this summer, and we were worried about the language barrier we might encounter there. None of us speak a lick of Dutch, so it should prove to be an interesting trip. Perhaps I will try and learn some before and on the plane ride over to Europe? Again, thank you for sharing!

  25. Amanda Sullivan

    Thank you for sharing, Allison. It is so interesting how wrapped up, us American’s, get into our culture. The best part of traveling is learning the uniqueness of a specific country. Language is all a part of this. It is most certainly nerve-racking not knowing what everyone is saying. However, there is something so satisfying communicating through nonverbal cues. It goes to show that language isn’t just all words. We can talk through our actions. The saying that “actions speak louder than words” is so true.

  26. Avnish Miyangar

    Thank you for making such an important point. I never really appreciated the English Language. We take it for granted especially here. We expect everyone we interact with to know the language. When we visit other countries and they know English it makes it a whole lot more convenient for us. Learning a new language other than your first is very difficult. Hats off to those trying to learn English in other countries. I think it is something we consider universal but also diverse because there are so many different languages. It is shame that we do not make much effort to learn new languages and try to preserve those that are being forgotten.

  27. Kendra Brunn

    What an interesting article! This is something I have thought a lot about and I am very lucky that English is my native language. Something that my mom taught me is to at least try to talk to people in their native language if you are in their country because they will appreciate it. My mom is fluent in Spanish so this is easy for her, but not as much for me. I took three years of Spanish and I was okay at it, but it was never a class that I tried very hard in . It’s amazing how universal the English language is but most native English speakers do not even think twice about it. Thanks for sharing!

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