Learning The Language.
Travel is immensely rewarding and enjoyable. It really does
broaden the mind: meeting people from different cultures and learning about how
their view of the world is different from yours is an enriching experience. You
may not agree with a particular society’s ideas about, say, the role of women –
but understanding how those ideas have formed can give you a great insight into
what makes human beings tick.
It’s a shame, then, that so many people are put off travel by
trivial worries. Probably the most insignificant of these, and the one most
often mentioned by nervous travelers, is the so-called ‘language barrier’. One
could understand people being worried about being robbed in Lagos or catching
malaria in New Guinea. The chances of getting beaten up or infected are
vanishingly small, if you take the right precautions, but they do involve
physical risk. But in the US ‘the language barrier’ is one of the top three
most-cited reasons for not traveling. It’s as if we’re more worried about
embarrassment than physical danger.
Language isn’t a barrier at all. It’s precisely the opposite – a
way into other people’s lives, cultures and traditions.
The fact that you’re reading this article shows you have one
enormous advantage in the language marketplace – you speak English. It’s a
mongrel language, made up of bits of old French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, ancient
Scandinavian languages and lots of other odds and ends of tongues that have
been scooped up and used over the years. Because of its mixed roots it’s very
flexible and adaptive – much more so than French, for example. This is one of
the factors that have made it the world’s dominant language. Wherever you go
you’ll meet people who speak at least a little English. In an emergency you’d
have to be somewhere very remote indeed not to find an English speaker. In most
of the world’s big cities all companies and institutions have at least one
person who speaks the language, especially if the organization’s business is
There are compelling reasons, though, for learning at least a
little of a country’s language before you travel there. It certainly makes
things easier. Trying to talk to people in their own language can be enormous
fun. You’ll find that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the person you’re
talking to will be surprised and delighted by your efforts. This is especially
true of foreign waiters. Personal experience suggests that ninety-five percent
of English-speaking tourists are too self-conscious or worried to talk to
service staff in their native language. That’s a shame, because even making the
effort will almost always result in better service and a friendly smile.
This isn’t true everywhere. Some Parisian waiters are so sick of
school kids practicing their language skills on them that they pretend to be
English. But it’s worth a try, especially in more remote parts of the world.
Here are some tips to kick-start your language learning
If you do nothing else, make sure you know the words for
‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. Those
seven words are more useful and important than any others. You can learn them
in less than ten minutes.
A few weeks before you travel take some night classes in the
language of the country you’re visiting. If you can’t, get hold of a ‘teach
yourself’ book. If you follow the book route, make sure it has an accompanying
tape or CD: it’s important to hear how a language sounds, and it’s difficult to
get a sense of sound purely from the printed page.
It’s impractical to drag a huge dictionary around a foreign
city. Most guidebooks have a glossary of phrases in the back, but often these
are a little short. A pocket phrase book is really useful – the best ones on
the market are by Rough Guide and Berlitz. They can also come in handy for
‘pointing’. With some languages it’s important to get the pronunciation just
right, or you won’t be understood. This seems odd to us, but languages like the
Chinese dialects rely on pronunciation for meaning. If you get stuck you can
always show your interlocutor the appropriate page in your phrase book!
If you already speak a foreign language, don’t automatically
assume you’ll be understood. The language in remote areas of some countries can
be very different from the language of the capital, and can even be difficult
for other native speakers. Find out about the dialect of the area you’re
visiting. This problem can also happen in reverse. Say you’re a native New
Yorker and you learned Italian from your parents or grandparents. Most Italian
Americans get their roots and their language from southern Italy and Sicily,
where the dialects can be thick and difficult. If you go to northern Italy, say
Milan or Venice, and speak ‘your’ Italian don’t be surprised if the locals
don’t understand a word and think you’re Slovakian. American Spanish speakers
should have less of a problem in Madrid, but some of the versions of German and
Norwegian spoken in Pennsylvania and the Mid West are, apparently, completely
incomprehensible in Berlin and Oslo.
So have fun with your languages, and remember that using them
can be the most satisfying aspect of any vacation. Pick up just a little of any
language and you’ll soon learn the great lesson that travel teaches: we are all
much more alike than we are different.