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January 2, 2019, 8:15 PM—I'm scrolling through my Twitter timeline when I see the following tweet:
I click on the tweet to see the comments because I'm sure there are people agreeing and disagreeing on this topic. People who are disagreeing on the topic say things like: "It's an international airport, therefore she should be able to speak English," "English is a universal language, therefore people who are in contact with internationals should speak English," etc. There are a few things that are wrong about these allegations, even though they seem perfectly fair.
"It's an international airport, therefore she should be able to speak English."
This is not true.
This woman is part of the airport personnel INSIDE of the airport. This means that she comes in contact with other personnel within that airport, a possible middleman such as a travel agency, and the customers who arrive at the airport. The reason why a large part of the personnel speak English at an airport is because they work for a company inside that airport who wants to deliver a good customer experience. When customers aren't happy with the service, their brand image will go down. Ryanair is a good example of this. They underpay their personnel and they do not treat their customers as well as other airlines do, hence why their brand image has gone down significantly.
However, the International Civil Aviation Organisation says that all air-traffic controllers and flight crew members must have a proficient level of English. This is for the sole reason of being able to fluently communicate through radiotelephone when in the air.
In conclusion, airport personnel are not obligated to speak English to you, no matter how important you think you are. They often will speak English out of politeness, but they do not owe you anything.
"English is a universal language, therefore people who are in contact with internationals should speak English."
Again, this statement is wrong.
My reply on Twitter can be seen above, but I will go in a little bit more detail here. The definition of a universal language is a language that is (or should be) spoken by everyone in the world. At this moment, not a single language in the world claims that name. Now, technically there is an exception to this. There is an international auxiliary language called "Esperanto" that was designed exactly for this purpose: Being a universal language. Not a single country in the world has this language as an official language though. Unfortunately, for the creators of the language, it did not get to serve its purpose because roughly only two million (out of seven billion) people speak the language.
Another argument you might have is that English is the most widely-spoken language in the world. Again, another questionable statement. Chinese is actually the most widely spoken, ironically. All dialects of Chinese are spoken by around 1.2 billion people in the world as a native language. Mandarin, which is the main dialect of Chinese, is spoken by roughly 900 million people in the world. To put that in perspective, English only has 340 million native speakers. When also counting the non-native speakers, Chinese would be at roughly 1.4 to 1.5 billion speakers in total, while English would also then have between 1.4 and 1.5 billion speakers in total.
In conclusion, no matter how you want to turn this argument, English should still not be considered the norm unless you are in a country where English is an official language. The only reason why it often is considered as a "universal language" is because it's a global language or "lingua franca" that has been established many years ago by the people who—at the time—had the most power in the world. For more information on the history of the English language and its power in the world, please check out this link.
Be respectful to locals whenever you're traveling! Appreciate their efforts of communicating with you even though it may not be very clear. You are in their country, so you should adapt to them as much as possible and not the other way round. You'd be surprised at how much hand gestures can help out, and learning basic sentences such as "Hello, how are you?" "How much is this?" and "Where is the bathroom?" can take you a long way. ;)