April 12, 2009
I’m hardly a linguist, but I strongly believe that when you visit someone else’s country, you need to speak their language—literally. Not that you need to be fluent in español or français or Arabic or Thai, but it shows a real sense of respect if you at least TRY to start your conversations off with pleasantries and polite phrases in the local tongue. Nothing says “ugly American” (or Australian or fill-in-the-nationality) like expecting those you meet at stores, at the train station, on the street to automatically speak the language you speak at home.
And since foreign-language phrase books are easily portable—and hardly cost a fortune—there’s no excuse for not buying one, learning some basic words and phrases, and using them once you arrive. To me, this is as essential to trip-planning as picking up foreign currency and packing those electric-appliance adapters that allow you to use your curling iron and laptop in other countries.
I’ve found that by merely speaking the words for “hello,” “goodbye,” “how much,” and the all-important “please” and “thank you” when in countries ranging from Greece to Turkey to Saudi Arabia has made all the difference in how I’m received. Those I encounter know I’m not from their country, but the fact I’ve at least TRIED to learn the essentials of their language mark me as a traveler , not merely a tourist.
Of course, if you can spare the extra bucks and the time, what’s ideal is taking a basic course in your chosen country’s language. Here in Chicago, programs offered by the Alliance Française de Chicago and Italidea (from the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago) include brief introductory courses for those traveling to their home countries. Even the affordable Discovery Center (whose language classes vary from great to not-so-much) can hook you up with language basics in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Arabic.
I know not everyone lives in big cities, but I’ll bet nearby community colleges in your area offer a beginner course in frequently used languages like Spanish, French (and these days, Chinese and Arabic). It’s a great way to enrich your trip before you even leave home—and so much the better if the class addresses that country’s culture as well as its lingo.
I’m curious: Has it made a difference in your travels when you’ve tried speaking other folks’ languages abroad, even when you weren’t fluent? Did it make your trip any better, or worse? Please share!
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