by Christian Arno, Lingo24
“Learn a new language and get a new soul” Czech proverb
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign”, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson.
Wherever you go, you wear the clothes and culture of your country, instantly recognisable as a foreigner. Humans, like all other animals, are adept at recognising that a stranger is not “one of us”. This inbuilt, evolutionary useful mechanism subconsciously triggers a barrier, whatever a country’s traditions of hospitality or however much they may be pleased to see you and your money.
Contrary to what you might assume, a smile is not necessarily the best way to indicate friendliness. In some Asian countries, a smile conceals anger, shock or embarrassment. Nor is it always a good idea to look someone in the eye: in some African countries, this is considered to show disrespect for an elder’s seniority or station. A good Zulu proverb states “Follow the customs, or flee the country”.
For the Bantu people of East Africa, even standing upright in the presence of a person of higher rank is discourteous. And don’t be surprised if a proffered handshake is spurned by an orthodox Muslim, especially if you are a woman.
Bridging Barriers with Words, Even a Little!
The best way to indicate friendliness is to learn a little of the local language. In the first place, this shows that you are not so arrogant as to assume not only that everyone speaks English, but that everyone ought to speak English.
US President, Barack Obama, has confessed that he is ashamed of being monolingual. In fact, the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, is the only industrialized country that regularly turns out high school students without a working knowledge of a foreign language. According to a US Congressional Record resolution dated February 1, 2005, only 9.3% of Americans are fluent in both their mother tongue and another language. By contrast, 52.7% of Europeans are fluent in both their mother tongue and at least one other language. Small wonder that this situation has given rise to the anonymously quoted observation that, ‘If you can speak three languages you’re trilingual. If you can speak two languages you’re bilingual. If you can speak only one language you’re an American’.
By taking the trouble to learn even just a little of the language of the country you are visiting, you demonstrate respect, friendliness, and an open mind. You will find that people will be more inclined to help you, and less inclined to assume you are gullible when it comes to doing business. Even if your knowledge of the language is limited to half a dozen words, with no prospect of continuing the conversation, resorting thereafter to gestures such as pointing to your map, you will still have made the all-important ice-breaker. This principle applies whether you are an independent traveller or in a tour group.
Magic Phrases: Not Only Words But Etiquette Too!
So what are the key words and phrases that will help you along? Interestingly, they do not revolve around factual information. If a person does not speak English, and you speak only the most basic Croatian or Swahili, being able to say, “I have lost my passport. How can I contact my Consulate?” will not get you very far. At the most, it will invite a torrent of information, utterly unintelligible to you. Although they serve no obvious practical purpose, it is the phrases that establish social interaction which are essential to learn. These are:
In English, Hello! can be used at any time of the day or night. In Turkish, you can use Merhaba! similarly. But the French don’t use Bonjour! in the evening. In the evening hours, they say Bonsoir! So, in some languages a simple greeting like Hello! may also require you to learn Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening and even Goodnight.Please
Despite the fact that this is essential in English, there are occasions in other countries where it is often superfluous: for example, it is not considered impolite in Swedish to say simply, “Pass the salt”. However, most languages preface requests for help of any sort with “Please” so it is advisable to learn it and be overly polite rather than risk being rude.
This is an essential word or phrase to learn in every language.
Pleased to meet you
Not strictly essential, but this will get you off to a good start socially. In Britain, “How d’you do?” is a substitute, often preferable, for which no response is required. See also “How are you?” below.
How are you?
In some countries and regions, such as Africa, this phrase is a follow-up essential and further enquiries as to the health of the family are also expected. When replying, you should always start by saying you are fine, even if you are not. So, say “Fine” first , and then double up and collapse on the floor!
This is where you need a few key nouns e.g. airport, bus, train station, hotel, restaurant, police, passport, money – not to mention doctor and hospital. If you are pregnant or suffer from a medical condition such as diabetes, it is as well to memorize these conditions in the local language so as to lend urgency to any services you require.
World Travelers Need More Than English — Here is Why!
According to the CIA World Fact Book, only 5.6 % of the world’s total population speaks English as a primary language. That number doubles when people who speak English as a second or third language are counted. By conservative estimates, that means that well over four-fifths of the world’s population does not speak English at all! Where’s your phrasebook …..
Whether electronic or in print, a good phrasebook will be handy on your travels if you want to connect with local people at all and not be fully dependent upon a guide even for simple communication. Become familiar with the guidebook’s physical arrangement and content before you leave home so you may refer to specific pages quickly when you need them.
The phrasebook should show pronunciation which is extremely important for tonal languages where pronunciation can make all the difference between you appearing charming or downright rude. A phrasebook should also cover numbers, days of the week, road signs (such as Stop!, One Way etc.), and likely scenarios in a hotel or restaurant. The best will introduce you to the essential elements of grammar as well.
Even if you can access automatic translation, for example on a cell phone, remember that the person with whom you are speaking may not be able to read in their own language, so showing them the word may not be a useful way to avoid pronouncing it yourself. These are the challenges and the delights of travel.
Lingo24 is a global translations company with over 4,000 translators. Operating 24 hours a day across four continents, Lingo24 translates for clients in all reputable sectors. Lingo24 also offers free automatic translation tools. www.lingo24.com.