I am absolutely god awful at languages, I always have been. Despite being taught French at school, having Japanese practically beaten into me since childhood by my martial arts training and my extended stay in Germany which should have at least made some of the language stick through osmosis if nothing else, I am barely conversational in these languages! And I suspect that when I do speak to a native speaker of French, German or Japanese I actually sound like I am having a stroke when I attempt to ask for another drink or say hello.
Because of this complete mental block when it comes to learning a new language, I have always been in complete and utter awe of anyone who is bilingual, especially those people who seem to pick it up effortlessly and are practically fluent in a week or two! Okay, it’s more like jealousy than awe, but still.
Just a few words in another language can break down so many cultural barriers.
Despite this, I have always tried and make an effort to speak at the very least just a few of the basic phrases of whichever country I am travelling in. You know the ones, hello, goodbye, please, thank you, two beers please and can I have a kiss! The basics.
Seriously though I do truly believe it is so important just to make that effort, to try and learn a little of the language. Just a few words in another language can break down so many cultural barriers that stand in our way when we are attempting to explore new countries and meet new people.
When you first arrive in a new place, being surrounded by new sights, sounds and smells, cultures and practices that are completely different from what you are used to and with hardly anyone around you speaking a language you can understand can be difficult at first and lead to a certain measure of culture shock. It get’s easier, don’t worry, and in time you will learn to love all the things that were so initially disorientating. Language however is another thing entirely, how will you get by when noone speaks your language? How will you interact with anyone? Find your way around? It can even sometimes be a little isolating, being surrounded by people all speaking in a completely alien tongue.
But it doesn’t have to be. Breaking down that barrier is easier than you think. All you need to do is try. That’s it.
I truly think that by doing so you can not only escape looking like a complete tourist expecting a local to understand you if you just speak a little louder, but it can create an instant connection between you and the place you are visiting, it breaks down that barrier of tourist and local, even if it is just for a split second, because by using the local language – even in a limited way – when speaking to a local, it just shows a little bit of respect to your host country. Language acts as a gateway, it opens doors into the cultures we visit and allows for a much richer, deeper travelling experience.
Of course it also serves a practical purpose too of allowing us to navigate our way around much easier and getting rid of touts and scam artists! By far the most practical phrases to learn in any language I have ever come across are ‘no, thank you’ and ‘leave me alone, I work here’. That way the touts will run off after the next person who looks like a tourist!
Noone will expect you to be absolutely fluent in a relatively short time spent there, but your efforts will be appreciated. Don’t get me wrong if you are staying in a region or country for a length of time and happen to become relatively competent at the language then that is fantastic, but as long as you are making the effort and trying, then that will count for as much as being able to converse fluently. Learn those basic phrases, use a translator app to find specific key words if you need to ask for something specific, just make that effort!
I am not fluent by any stretch of the imagination, but by learning just a few key phrases at first and using them as often as possible, I have found that I have had very little trouble communicating no matter what country I am in. Okay, so like every other native English speaker I cheat a bit. English is spoken very widely around the world – especially in the more heavily touristy areas – and even in some of the most remote places there is usually someone who speaks a little English, but with a combination of broken phrases, hand gestures and good humour I have found that wherever I have travelled around the world I have never had much trouble communicating with anyone. Mostly this is because the locals take pity on me butchering their language and switch to English pretty quickly, but I like to think that most of the time at least the effort is appreciated even if the application was rubbish!
So when you set off on your round the world adventures, you don’t have to be a polyglot or be fluent in two dozen languages including Esperanto, all you need to do is make an effort. Learn a few phrases – as much as you can – because believe me even if it isn’t much the rewards you get will be more than worth it.