As Americans, we are spoiled. We speak English and do not usually feel compelled to learn another language—myself included—as most other countries and societies do. Since I have been too lazy to learn a foreign language, I am always grateful for the patient and kind people I encounter when traveling who are willing to help me with directions, find the bathroom, or get the correct change back. I’m also lucky that English is the “universal” language and I am able to connect with people from all over the world because they, at least, had the ambition to learn another language—English.
There was no instance more distinct in my memory when I was grateful others were fluent in English because it allowed me to have an experience that cannot be duplicated.
While traveling in Thailand two years ago I visited the small island of Koh Tao. Koh Tao (meaning “Turtle Island”) is renowned for its scuba diving and has over 50 dive schools; an impressive fact given the island is only eight square miles. I planned to spend my time on the island taking lessons to become scuba certified.
I visited many dive schools to find which one I liked the best. Australian beach bums with shaggy bleached blonde hair ran a majority of them and I did not trust the hungover, laid back young men with my life while diving. I had almost given up finding a school when I came upon Pura Vida Diving; the Spanish dive school.
While the majority of classes were taught in Spanish, they did teach one class in English. My diving class consisted of Torben and Miriam, the Germans; Quentin, a Frenchman; Gorka, our Spanish instructor; and me, the token American.
Even though I took the English course, all of the students (mostly from South America) taking diving lessons at Pura Vida went out to sea on the same boat. That’s how I celebrated my twenty-fourth birthday—on a boat among strangers turned friends who sang “Happy Birthday” to me in their Spanish, German, and French accents and kissed me on the cheek.
When I traveled to Thailand I held a python, swam in a waterfall infested with ravenous fish, learned to scuba dive, carried all of my belongings in a backpack, and met friends from Thailand, Austria, Germany, Canada, Spain, and Argentina.
While I am glad I grew up in a country whose first language is English, I am also grateful to foreigners who speak English and are able to communicate with me as I have learned an invaluable amount from them.