Winston Churchill once said the Americans and British were two peoples separated by a common language. The more countries I visit, the more this seems to be true all over the globe.
For better or worse, English has become the second language for most of the world. While no one cause can be singled out for this, I believe there are two great contributing factors.
First, after World War II, we were one of two superpowers left standing. Since we stood for freedom and democracy while the other guys represented repression, it only made sense for folks to want to talk to us.
Second, in the 1950s when commercial air travel became more affordable and popular, it quickly became obvious how hard it would be to land in New York or Los Angeles when the pilots spoke only Farsi or Japanese. The world chose English.
I never cease to be amazed by people who speak impeccable English in the mountains of Peru or the jungles of Cambodia.
But I've found that an accent can make quite a difference.
Recently my wife and I, along with a travel companion, were in the tiny town of Battambang in central Cambodia.
We hired a guide to take us up the river to our next destination at Siem Reap. This was to be a six-hour trip followed by crossing Lake Sap, the largest lake in Central Asia.
Battambang is an extremely poor area, and our mode of transportation was a very small, battered boat not much larger than the three of us.
With six bags lashed to the bow, four travelers, and the boatman, I figured we were overloaded by at least a ton. We frequently had seen four or five people on a single motorbike, so no one but us was concerned about our weight.
We had been on the water only a few minutes when our pilot made for shore and hopped from our boat to another.
Our guide said not to worry, he would only be a minute. He added, "We need to pick up live chickens for their legs."
My wife and I exchanged glances. We are pretty open minded, especially when traveling in a third-world country. It was obvious there was little room in our tiny vessel for chickens.
If we had to take them along, we were willing to hold them on our laps - there was no place else to put them.
The thought even occurred to me that perhaps the chickens were needed if the boat's tiny engine stopped in the middle of nowhere.
I had a vision of us holding them over the side of the boat while their tiny legs paddled away, guiding us to safety. After all, our guide had said we needed them for their legs.
We proceeded to make numerous jokes about live chickens towing us to shore if we capsized and about eating them if we became marooned.
Meanwhile, our guide just gave us a puzzled look.
Finally my wife turned to him and asked, "How many chickens are we taking?"
At first he seemed totally bewildered, then a large smile spread over his face. He bent over and began to laugh uncontrollably.
My wife turned to me and said, "I'm glad he finds the thought of us holding chickens on our laps for six hours so funny."
When he finished laughing, he looked at us and very loudly enunciated: "No live chickens! I said, 'We need life jackets for the lake!' "
It took a moment for this to sink in, and then we all had a good laugh. In fact, for the next six hours he kept asking us if our "chickens" fit all right and then laughed hysterically.
"America, so funny!" he kept saying.