Photo: American and Japanese people talking train

Trip talk: Travel encounters can benefit from a common third language.

Photograph by Dave Bartruff, Corbis

By Daisann McLane

From the September 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Michiko, the young Japanese woman I’m sharing a seat with on a bus near Tokyo, speaks a shy, hesitant English. In such situations I often use my camera for show-and-tell, but it’s running out of battery juice. So I resign myself to a couple of hours filled with stilted, polite English. “What country are you from? Do you like our Japanese sushi?” But then something unexpected happens. Grasping for a subject to talk about with her, I spot the headline on the cover of a local tourism leaflet, written in Japanese and English. Japanese has Chinese characters in its writing system and I can read Chinese, so I immediately notice that the characters for the Japanese word “Chiba” mean “One Thousand Leaves.” How perfect, I think, looking out the bus window at a rich autumn panorama of golden gingko and flame-red maple trees blanketing the hillsides.

Pointing to the leaflet, I turn to Michiko and say: “Chiba means one thousand leaves.” She perks up. “Yes!” she responds, then adds in a French accent that is way better than mine, “Milles feuilles.”

“Mais alors,” I say, “vous parlez français?”

No, she answers, and, once again in a pitch-perfect accent, says “Hablo español.”

Fantastic! “Yo también—me too,” I tell her. We’ve found common ground, and race into an extended conversation. As shy as Michiko is in English, she’s confident, funny, and even a bit saucy when she speaks in Spanish.

It has been observed that we often change personalities when we switch languages. I don’t speak any Japanese, so I don’t know what Michiko is like in her mother tongue. In the third tongue of Spanish, however, we blast past not just linguistic but cultural differences to have a real—and soon a dishy, even intimate—conversation. “¿Te gustan los hombres latinos?” she asks me. Do I like Latin men?

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced the thrill of connecting on the road with someone in a third-party tongue, which is what I call a common language that’s non-native to both speakers. A basic knowledge of at least one other language is a handy item to have in your travel tool kit, for it levels the playing field.

Thanks to the worldwide penetration of the English language, usually when I travel I’m talking to people from another culture and language who are straining to speak mine. While I never take this effort for granted, and I certainly appreciate it, having the linguistic advantage makes me feel impolite somehow. And guilty, because I’m never going to spend years mastering Tamil or Thai or Japanese.

Since I believe every traveler should speak other languages, I have spent years learning two myself, Spanish and Cantonese. This introduces the flip side of the travel-language dilemma. When I’m in Madrid or Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton), I do my best to keep pace with the rapid-fire, slangy conversation of native speakers who always seem to be tossing around vocabulary words that weren’t in my study books. I lean forward into the conversations and listen with all my concentration and heart, but after a while of struggling I become exhausted and frustrated, and soon give up.

The not-native-to-either-party language is like a neutral territory, a halfway point where the joys and difficulties of communication are shared equally. I speak more slowly, knowing that my listeners may not “hear” me like a native; they return the favor. We all leave out tricky turns of phrase.

The late English novelist Angela Carter, who spent some years living in Japan in the 1970s, wrote, “Language is power, life, and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” As a traveler, I want my words to bring me closer to people, not pound them over the head with the reminder that my language is on the global A-list of linguae francae. So I grab every chance I get to use that most democratic and liberating language of all, the third tongue.

Sometimes just finding a third tongue can be an adventure. One day in India’s northern state of Rajasthan, I wandered through a Jain temple, mostly not noticing the murmur of voices in Hindi­—or was it Gujarati?—around me, when my ear latched on to a very familiar rhythm of sounds. I turned and found four European women discussing the architectural details of the temple in lispy castellano Spanish. I greeted them with an “¡Hola!” and we ended up having lunch together. Because they had so tired of speaking in their third tongue, English, as they made their way around English-speaking India, they were happy to slow down their native Spanish for me.

Then there was the time in Shanghai when I lost my way as I wandered the streets outside the Yu Yuan Garden, in the city’s Old Town. Mandarin, the official language of mainland China, is the dominant language here, making the Cantonese I’d learned in Hong Kong not very useful. Night was falling, and no taxi would stop to pick me up. Just then, my ear clutched at something. Was that Cantonese drifting from the group of people next to me on the street? I listened more closely. No, darn, it was Mandarin. Still, with desperation setting in, I went over to them anyway and asked in Cantonese if they knew where the taxi stand was.

To my surprise, one of the young men answered in “my” Chinese.

“I am from Shanghai, so my first language is Shanghainese,” he explained. “I also speak Mandarin, of course. But now I work in a factory in the city of Guangzhou, so I learned Cantonese there.”

He then strode right into the traffic-filled street and practically dragged a taxi back with him. As I thanked him, a thought hit me: In China, with its multiple languages and dialects, people communicate in third tongues all the time. Maybe some day the whole world will.

Back in the bus with Michiko, we finally pull up to our destination, an old Shinto temple perching on top of a mountain. The classic Japanese setting exerts the powerful force of place, pulling Michiko and me away from our lingua franca detour to Madrid and its hombres latinos and placing us squarely in the present. We fall out of Spanish and back into our mother languages and our roles: the local person and the foreign tourist. Now, though, we know the third tongue will be there when we need it.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane tweets from her travels. You can follow her on Twitter at @Daisann_McLane.

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