Tip #3: Learn to Say 30 Key Words in the Local Language
By Jeff Goldman
All travelers know how comical and frustrating it can be to visit places where they do not speak the language. (A Dutch woman trying to order fried eggs in a restaurant in China acted out a hen laying eggs and was shown to the bathroom.) And most travelers know how important it is to show respect toward locals by at least saying hello, thank you, and goodbye.
As a Thai rice farmers broad smile shows, a few additional terms make a huge difference, both for you and for locals. And it only takes most people a casual week to learn the key 30 words or phrases in any language to become proficient in travel-speak. These include terms for greetings, numbers, time, transportation, food, describing yourself, bathroom, and accommodations.
After spending a thrilling week in Albertville, France, the location of the 1992 Winter Olympics, I wanted to relax in the wintry countryside. The only host in the surrounding area listed in my hospitality directory (from an international organization named SERVAS, www.servas.org) was a 25-year-old woman, whose short biography said that she spoke no English. After a week learning French basicswhile speaking only English with the international fansI wondered how I was going to arrange to meet her by phone without the use of universal gesture-language.
Inspired by the spectacular snowy Alps around me, I inserted a phone card into the public phone and dialed her home number.
"Allô," she answered.
"Bonjour," I started, and continued in choppy French, "Hi Meribel Lablanc. Hi Meribel Lablanc. I SERVAS. America. No French, no French."
In a warm tone, she rattled off words in French, none of which I could identify.
I reiterated in French, "I SERVAS. America. No French. I Albertville. I sleep you, yes? I SERVAS, you SERVAS. I sleep you, yes? 9 oclock, train arrive. 9 oclock, train arrive."
She laughed for a few seconds, came down to my level, and confirmed in abbreviated, slow French.
"You SERVAS. You train arrive 9 oclock. You sleep, yes. I train 9clock."
Against the odds, we had made plans to meet.
I echoed, "Thank you, thank you. I train arrive 9 oclock. You arrive train 9 oclock. Thank you, thank you. Goodbye."
She was either amused or being polite, and chirped, 9 oclock. Goodbye."
After dark, my train arrived, and I stood on the railway platform, holding my SERVAS directory in the air for identification. I strolled for ten minutes through the small station, and a young woman approached what must have looked like the only U.S. national in the building. We had connected. What an Olympian feat! With a smile, she grabbed my elbow and led me to her car. Now I could combine my token French with universal gesture and point language.
Over the next few days, we pointed at many foods, laughed constantly, and often consulted a French-English dictionary.
At a birthday dinner party at the apartment of one of her friends we found someone who spoke considerable English. I complimented my host on how kind, patient, and open-minded she had been. The translator explained how impressed she was with my independence and that I could go anywhere in France with my small vocabulary. Then I got a lecture on how important language is to their culture.
Now, after attempting over 20 languages in 47 countries, I realize how important 30 key words are in any culture.
JEFF GOLDMAN has tested many tips while visiting 47 countries and leading community service trips to South America and Asia. He shares travel and work abroad ideas in adult education seminars.
* Editors Note: For information and tips on learning a foreign language, see our Language Study and Immersion Resources.