Lesson Learned: Learn the Language

Girl in Museum with Movement
Image: think cink.

What’s the biggest fear of any American traveling abroad? Not being understood. We’ve seen it parodied in movies, reassured friends’ fears, and even heard the cop out, “I’ll go to England for vacation, at least they speak the same language.” Book publishers have seized upon this fear as a money-making opportunity, and exploited it to it’s fullest potential. Enter the travel section of any bookstore and you'll be inundated with titles promising a quick fix, such as Learn Italian in 10 Minutes a Day or German for Travelers. However, we’re here to tell you there is no quick fix. These books are full of too many words, and if you are a procrastinator, like myself, no matter how hard you try, you simply can't memorize all of the words for Italian food on the plane ride over.

Some of the best advice I could give to a fearful traveler is to make sure you learn at least a few phrases before you leave and, even more importantly, how to pronounce them. You will never want to crack open a guide book at dinner, and have to try to pronounce “Mi scusi, il canto per favore.” More than likely, you'll chicken out, or if you are brave enough to try it without any practice, you'll probably sound a bit foolish. Taking the time to learn how to pronounce those key phrases by heart will save you from many awkward situations.

Learning a few key phrases in the language of your visiting country will give you an instant boost of confidence and allow you to cast aside some of the fear associated with being in a foreign place. You will know how to greet someone, ask how much something costs, and wield the always useful phrase "Do you speak my language?" No matter your level of fluency, there will be times when you just can't or won't feel like trying to fight your way through a difficult conversation in a foreign language.

Another benefit of attempting a foreign language is that the locals will treat you with the utmost respect and kindness for making any attempt to communicate with them in their native tongue. I first learned this lesson visiting Munich with my sister, when we discovered that the night clerk at our hotel, Pietro, was an Italian expat. Having just arrived from Italy, we were still in the mode of saying ciao and grazie. He loved that we spoke his language, as he was homesick for his native country. Pietro took quite a liking to us, spending the evenings speaking to us in broken English and Italian. One evening, over tea and stolen Nutella from the breakfast bar, we sat in the lobby and chatted with him about why he left Italy. Midway through our conversation, a pair of demanding American girls came down from their room complaining that the phone wasn't working and they needed to call the airlines to change their flights. They were rude and pushy. Our Italian friend suddenly forgot the English language, smiled, and replied "phone works." They kept at it, asking him if he could call the airline. Pietro just threw up his hands up in the air and said, "Sorry, phone works." They huffed off frustrated and scared, while he quickly returned to our conversation in perfect English.

Don't ever feel like you need to learn the entire phrase-book to get by, often it’s the simple words and phrases that make all the difference. Take the time to learn the appropriate phrases such as "Hello," "Excuse Me," "Do you speak English?," and the ever important "The check, please." (Especially if you are in Italy!) One phrase you might not think to memorize is the one telling a native that you don't speak their language. This is particularly useful if you look like you could be from the country you are visiting. For instance, while in Germany I had countless Germans ask me for god knows what. I didn't know how to say, "I don't speak German." So I would just look at them sheepishly, shake my head, and say in English, "Sorry, I speak English." It worked, but I wish I knew how to get the point across a little more elegantly. When it comes to travel, there is nothing more frustrating and scary than not knowing the protocol for a situation. With a small arsenal of phrases under your belt, you can walk the streets of any country with just a little more spring in your step.

For help with the language you need to learn, check out the BBC's website.

Going to Europe? BBC has already done some of the work for you, and even has key phrases in mp3 format!

If you do have some time before your trip, audio classes such as Rosetta Stone are a good option; you can listen to them in the car, on the subway, or anywhere else you have waiting time to use.