Learning the language of the locals

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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8 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Tobi-Velicia  |  April 12, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    I read about you in today’s Chicago Tribune–I was so excited to learn about your solo travels.

    I went to Paris by myself for four weeks during August/September of 2008 to celebrate my completion of grad school at age 42.

    Although I have heard that some people found the French to be somewhat rude, I found the French to be very nice and it could very well be because I attempted to speak the language as much as I could. I had studied French when I was young, and went back to taking it for fun in 2005. In 2007, I started back taking ballet (after a 30-year hiatus) and that class was also completely in French.

    I’m enclosing a copy of an email I sent to friends and family after I had been in Paris for a couple weeks. The title of this email was Life In Paris. It’s quite long–I hope you enjoy reading it when you have time…


    It’s great here so far–the Parisians don’t realize I’m from the US unless I tell them after asking, “Pouvez-vous parlez un peu plus lentement?” [Could you speak a little more slowly?]

    Often, they say, “Vous parlez bien français” [You speak French well] I don’t think they mean I’m extremely fluent, but that I have a good accent. I’m so glad I started back taking French a couple years ago!

    I decided not to take French courses while in Paris after all. I really wasn’t in the mood for more schoolwork–especially after the hectic schedule I’ve had over the past few months. I wanted to just come here and relax. My master’s project was graded as ‘S’ for successful–soon I will be conferred my master’s in public health. So I didn’t want anything to do with school!

    I’ve been meeting people on the train, in the laundrymat, and generally just walking around. My need to talk and find out peoples’ business overpowers my fear of not saying things correctly. I met a lady who is going to the US for the first time to visit friends in California; a girl who is taking English classes for fun; a guy from Scotland whom thought I was from Paris and was trying to practice his French–we had a good laugh over the fact that I thought he was from Paris too.

    Interesting Parisian fashion: All of the women, young and old, wear skinny jeans with converse gymshoes, a trench and the ever-present scarf. (It’s cold here, by the way–in the 60′s). I’m glad I bought a jacket and my black rasta hat due to the odd sudden bouts of rain. I bought a scarf on my second day here because they really are a necessity here to stay warm. I have two pairs of never-worn converse gymshoes at home–I guess I will be wearing them when I get home in fond memories of Paris.

    I’m taking ballet three days a week at the Centre de Danse du Marais–I had an interesting first day during my during first week in Paris:

    I arrived early, and initially, it seemed that it would be a small class.

    However, soon quite a few students showed up, there were even three men in my class–one guy resembled Justin Timberlake! The class is really diverse and of all ages over 18. The teacher is really nice and hilarious and seemed pleased that a student from the US wanted to take classes with him.

    The class was Debutant 1 & 2 (Beginner), but those students seemed to have danced their whole lives! Thank goodness I started back taking ballet almost a year ago, so I was able to keep up.

    When I returned to the dressing room, I discovered that the dressing room is UNISEX! Two of the men (including ‘Justin’) were seated in their underwear, and the women were very nonchalantly removing their leotards and getting into their street clothes.

    I turn around, and this guy who must have been coming in for the next class, strolls in, removes EVERYTHING, and puts on his tights!

    I discreetly picked my jaw off the floor and got dressed–you know I tend to wear my street clothes over my leotards so I only had to put my jeans back on.

    I’ve been busy somewhat–the first Friday I was here, I went to the Museum of Erotica–naturally I would locate something like that! (I found it when I was looking for the Moulin Rouge). Some of the more ancient artifacts were really interesting, but the more modern Asian “erotica” I saw was disturbing and demeaning to women.

    The next day, Saturday morning, I went on a Paris Walk. This one was called Marais 1 and gave an interesting history about the architecture and about some of the people who lived there. I’ll probably do Marais 2 sometime next week–this one is about the intrigues concerning that neighborhood.

    The following Sunday, I went with a classmate from my French classes in the US to Chartres Cathedral. Beautiful church that was first built in the first century, I think. But the music played in there was really creepy like vampire music!

    More info about my ballet class: I wound up taking one and a half ballet classes last Saturday: I couldn’t remember why I had plans to take the 6pm class, so I arrived for the 2pm class.

    I thought I would be prepared for the dressing room, but upon entering, there were guys as usual, sitting in their underwear, two partially nude women (boobs hanging out) and somebody’s 5-year-old child. Just as I sat down, I hear a voice saying, “Bonjour Bébé!”

    It’s my ballet teacher! He was seated on a bench in the dressing room, amongst the half-nude students. He has given me a pet name, as he thought I was very young when I first came there and requested to start taking classes. I was mortified that people actually undress in front of their teacher!

    The teacher informed me that the class “may be a little difficult, but try anyway”. Turns out this was the ADVANCED class; this was why I had planned on going at 6pm instead of 2pm but had forgotten. I was able to manage the barre work, but for the center, the teacher told me to watch. For the center, many students wore pointes. And I’m amazed at the number of women forty and older who are so healthy and fit, dancing on pointe.

    So after this class, I had a meal in the courtyard of the building so I would have enough energy participate in the next class. My waiter spoke only Spanish, no English and very little French. I ordered some prochettes (kebabs)–poulet (chicken) kebabs and ‘gambes’ kebabs.

    Now, my waiter told me that the ‘gambes’ were a type of ‘poisson’ (fish). But they turned out to be giant crawfish–which I’m deathly afraid of! I discretely cut off the heads and all those legs, put them aside, and only eat the part that looks like regular shrimp. I asked the waiter to please take those heads away.

    Unfortunately, he misunderstood–I asked him in French, forgetting that he didn’t understand it very well, or perhaps I didn’t say it properly, but he comes back and puts something wrapped in foil on the table. It’s those crawfish heads! Note to self: Bring a dictionary to dinner!

    So then I go to the 6pm ballet class, which was more my level. There was an AMAZING-looking Eurasian guy who appeared to be about 30-years-old. While talking to him during the stretching portion of class, I found out that he was FORTY-NINE! I’m hoping to see him in class again soon…

    This past Saturday, I was in Normandy all day. Normandy is very nice–it’s known for it’s apples, the cider and a liquor called Calvados. It took about an hour and a half to to get there, a little bit longer to get back, so I was wiped out when I returned to my apartment that night.

    I’m finally going to start using my four-day Carte Musee starting tomorrow to go to the museums–the Louvre will be my first stop.

    Not too much else going on–I have a stomachache from all the cheese I’ve been sampling…or maybe it’s from the delicious pastries from the Algerian patisserie I went to on Friday evening…or all that hard cider I drank and all the ice cream soaking in Calvados that I had in Normandy!

    À Bientôt

  • 2. urbantravelgirl  |  April 12, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    So glad you visited my (relatively new) blog after reading my piece in the Tribune! And thrilled to hear that you’re a believer in solo travel — isn’t it the BEST?

    GOOD FOR YOU having spent a full month in Paris… that’s a dream of mine! Sounds like you didn’t have a dull moment — as if a “dull moment” is possible in Paris. (And I think I took that same Marais Paris Walk when I went on a different solo trip!)

    I’m sure your friends and family were captivated by your e-mail… I was hanging on every word. As Rick Steves always says at the end of his TV shows, “Keep on traveling!”


  • 3. Tobi-Velicia  |  April 12, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Hi Maureen–

    Thank you so much for your response to my comment.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed my email about Paris–I actually have a (shorter) interesting email from the year before; I went to Montreal for one week by myself in summer 2007. It was my “practice run” for Paris…and the comfort of falling back on English if I had to!

    The email about Montreal is proof of “being at the right place at the right time” i.e. divine intervention.

    I’ll submit that email after I locate it…


  • 4. Tobi-Velicia  |  April 12, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Hi again–

    I couldn’t locate the email from Montreal, but I copied and pasted my journal entry which illustrates this really cool chance meeting:

    “I had a great week on vacation. Something really interesting happened on my first day there—I had only been in Montréal for one hour:

    For some odd reason, I decided to dine at a Japanese restaurant for lunch. The Japanese servers of course, did speak French, so I placed my order en français. (Proudly, I spoke French from the moment I got off the plane–asking airport staff where could I take a taxi, etc!)

    I noticed that the diner sitting at his table next to me kept glancing over at me after I’d speak to the server. [Unfortunately my first thought was that he had NEVER seen a Black person before, let alone a Black person with locs!] Finally, in French, he asked me what country I was from. After I told him I was from the US, Chicago, he said I spoke very good French and that one doesn’t normally hear such good French from Chicagoans (I would hear that from a lot of people throughout my trip!).

    Then he asked what I planned on doing with my French language skills. (At this point, we went from French, to ‘Franglais’–mixing French and English due to my lack of complete French vocabulary, to English…) I explained how I just wanted to be fluent in French one day, and how I was going to Paris next year, and dreamed of one day going to Sénégal or Côte Ivoire (Ivory Coast)–where I could meet Africans who speak French. He asked me what type of work did I do, and I told him about my work in STDs at my county’s health department as a field epidemiologist, and about my previous work with people impacted by communicable disease.

    He suggested that I consider immigration public health and asked me what my educational background was. I told him about my undergrad degree in biology and about my sociology and classical studies minors; and that I had one more year of graduate school in a public health program.

    Well, turns out that this man is a researcher in infectious disease at McGill University in Montréal! He gave me his information and told me to contact him after I received my master’s degree!

    He said there are different studies and public health programs going on in Sénégal and the Ivory Coast, and other French-speaking West African countries and that my educational background, job experience, and French language skills would be perfect for that type of work.”

    I have not yet been able to participate in a project with this researcher–I actually received a promotion at work about two months before I completed my master’s in 2008 and traveled to Paris. But it was such as amazing experience to meet someone like him by “chance”.

    At the very least, this showed the nay-sayers that it is a benefit to studying the French language and culture that I’ve loved since I was a kid…many people, although they weren’t and never had taken a foreign language before, always asked me, “Why not take Spanish, it’s more useful!”

    I believe in studying and learning what you are most interested in–a “benefit” may or may not come, but at least you are doing what you truly enjoy…

  • 5. urbantravelgirl  |  April 12, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Hey there, TVJ!
    You are SO right about how at least TRYING to speak a foreign language abroad can open doors we never even expected!! I hope that McGill University contact you made pans out eventually… what a wonderful surprise during your lunch!

    And I’m with you on studying languages and cultures you love, not just those that are “practical.” I speak fairly decent Italian — and decided to move to Florence some years back in part because I fell in love with the culture while studying the language. I have had some of the most amazing experiences while in Italy, and being able to (somewhat) speak the language has helped immensely. If nothing else, it STUNS people (in a good way!) to hear an African-American chica from Chicago speaking Italian! I figure it’s always good to shake up people’s understanding from time to time. :-)

  • 6. planetnomad  |  May 12, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    I have found that attempting to speak a local language makes an enormous difference in how one is received. We lived in Mauritania for years, where the lingua franca is French. We would stumble along in Hassiniya, or attempt Pulaar greetings, to much applause, because the locals were so pleased that someone was taking the effort to attempt to learn their admittedly obscure dialect.

    It doesn’t always work though. Some people mock you; once a Mauritanian said, in our hearing, that it was horrible to hear dogs trying to speak their pure and beautiful language! But overall, I think you’re right. This guy wouldn’t have been any more pleased if we’d spoken French or English.

  • 7. urbantravelgirl  |  May 13, 2009 at 4:39 am

    Ciao, again Planet Nomad! Glad you agree about the value of struggling to speak others’ language… it just conveys a measure of respect and humility. And after having to do it abroad, don’t you have THAT MUCH MORE sympathy when you see recent immigrants or visitors here in the States struggling with difficult English? Makes me want to reach out and hug ‘em — I’ve been there!

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