Tourism: The language barrier

Signage and announcements in multiple languages with proper spelling and grammar can go a long way to assisting non-local tourists.

Over the past few decades international travel has grown in leaps and bounds. That so many people would be travelling to international destinations on holiday was unthinkable back before the beginning of the jet age in the 1950s. Today, it has become something more of a long distance commute with the largest planes – the Boeing 747 and the recent Airbus A380 – packing hundreds of people between their wings on busy routes. With the number of people crossing international borders into territories where different languages are spoken on the rise, it has become increasingly important that areas targeting increasing numbers of tourists can communicate clearly with their international arrivals.

For many places, the first port of call into another country is usually an airport (if not, a border crossing check on a road or a cruise terminal). Proper communication is particularly important for the busiest international airports such as Heathrow in London, Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong and Charles de Gaulle in Paris where passengers speaking such a large variety of different languages are arriving or transferring to other flights. Some of these airports do make an effort such as Hong Kong, where information is displayed and announcements are made in Cantonese, Mandarin and English while others simply don’t bother – usually the ones where English is the official language – often leaving a few visitors rather lost.

For example, the introduction of Mandarin in Hong Kong is a real step forward for the small territory. Before mainland China began its great economic boom in the 1990s, everything was done in the native language of Cantonese and the other official language introduced by Britain: English. As China boomed and with an ever increasing potential tourist market for Hong Kong, Mandarin was introduced in places more widely such as the transport system to encourage tourism to Hong Kong by mainland Chinese visitors who now play a key role in Hong Kong’s tourism industry. Futhermore, many retail assistants have been trained to speak in Mandarin. (To be honest, written Mandarin does not vary much from Cantonese so reading is not such an issue, but the spoken languages can be quite different.)

In places such as Japan and South Korea, where they are the only country (or one of a couple of countries) that speaks the official language of their country, communication is important with both incoming non-local arrivals and outgoing locals. They need to be able to communicate with their arrivals and both countries have done this with some success. Since jointly hosting the Football World Cup in 2002, both countries have installed many signs in English which makes moving around a lot easier, keeping their tourists from becoming lost (other than on what can be somewhat confusing transport systems regardless of what language is spoken!) and encouraging non-Japanese and Korean speakers to visit. Often, the grammar is not perfect (Engrish!) but this is forgivable as long as it can be understood and not misinterpreted. Other languages have not been introduced on signs to the scale that English has, and this is an area in which these two countries can improve.

Being an international Japanese or Korean traveller with a lack of English could be rather intimidating outside an organised group with a guide. Many English speaking countries such as Australia and Canada (except Quebec where French is quite common) simply have not bothered with multi-lingual signs or announcements. For areas where tourism is an important industry, it can’t simply be expected that tourists will have a grasp of the English language. Certainly, countries such as Japan and South Korea haven’t expected all their arrivals to speak their local languages. To be fair though, for many non-English speaking countries choosing English as the language targeted at tourists is an understandable thing to do as it is the accepted language of international business. For countries where multiple official languages exist, there is also less of an issue as it is more likely that a visitor will be able to speak one of the languages. However, for places where English is the only official language it isn’t so easy to pick another language to use when there are so many different languages to choose from and none of them clearly dominate over the others. Placing signs in every possible language isn’t practical, although solutions like touch-screens that can display information about a location to tourists in many languages such as at an airport would be a good start. I’m sure there’s plenty of other good ideas out there as well.

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