Foreign to Familiar- Tripping Over the Language Barrier In Style- Learning a Little Language Can Help You Get By in a Foreign Country

When we prepared to book our ferry crossing from England, I felt totally prepared. Luckily, my French is completely sufficient to navigate our needs, and my German is getting much better. Unluckily, we were disembarking in Holland, a country whose language is so inexplicably difficult that the rest of the world had the good sense to confine its speakers to one small parcel of sea, which the Dutch then had the good sense to push it all back where it belonged to create land. Luckily, one of my very closest friends is from Holland and speaks flawlessly impeccable Dutch. Unluckily, she has only ever spoken to me in flawlessly impeccable English. Luckily, she patiently tried to throw a few useful phrases my way to help with the train passage through her below-sea-level country. Unluckily, she was over 4,000 miles away and the phone connection was not enough to comprehend what in the world she was saying. Luckily, none of that mattered because the Dutch, anticipating that no one else speaks their inexplicably difficult language besides themselves, have all learned to speak flawlessly impeccable English. The moral of this paragraph is that in the end, luck will eventually win the day if you keep going.

Luck aside, we have been asked many times if it's really necessary for English speakers to try to learn a bit of the language before traveling to their country of choice. The short answer is YES. The long answer is HELL YES! While it's true English is widely spoken, you'll get a lot further and have a much more pleasant trip if you try to speak in the country's native language. For one thing, native English speakers are all too often accused of seeming a bit too entitled and one of the things that perpetuates that view is a belief that everywhere they go, they present themselves as believing others should comply to their language. But look, it's like this- the country you're visiting is neither designed for your comfort nor your convenience; it's designed for theirs. Recognizing you are, in fact, the foreigner here is an important first step to proper humility. Also, a “try,” just a feeble go at it, and you will find you will be met more congenially and MORE than halfway. Never ever once in our travels have we come across anyone who was put off by our inability to speak perfect...anything. A try, an attempt, an acknowledgment that “we know it's your language and though we're not very good at it, we respect you enough to try to fit in” has proven 100% successful for us. And here's the thing, you don't have to sit and practice a language ad nauseum in order to have success. We've got a few good tips that, if you give yourself about 30 minutes per day for two weeks prior to your trip, you're guaranteed to build good will, get around better, and feel a sense of accomplishment. So what do you really need to know?

How To Be Nice

Pleasantries in the new language are absolutely important. Hello. Goodbye. Please. Thank you. Good morning. Good evening. Useful and easy, and most used of all the things you could learn. They also go the furthest in generating good will and restoring us English-speaking folk to a respectable status. I would add to the above, “Sorry, my [insert name of language here] is not very good.” I use it all the time and it absolutely breaks any tension. It works because I have fallen on the sword, I've admitted that I'm going to mess this up but dammit, I'm trying, and I'm just not as good at both of these languages as you are. Works like a dream, works every single time, and I usually walk away having learned a new word or phrase because now I have given the other person the feeling of superiority and out of compassion, I'm invariably taught something new. Plus, I'm willing to learn and that helps.

How To Count

Numbers are important. You need them to count money and know how much something is, if you received the right change, and how many beers you would like to order (or wine, I'm not excluding you). And numbers are easy. Learn 1 to 10, then 10 to 20. By then a pattern will emerge, “Oh! So this is how they count,” and I'll be willing to bet you can get from 20 to 30 and 30 to 40 and so on, on your own. It's all formulaic, and I say this even about the French, who somehow belived no numbers came after 69 and now they're stuck with a terribly complicated 70 and above (baffling).


How To Ask For and Get Directions

HUGE one! HUGE! You WILL get lost, count on it. It's their country, they know where things are. Obviously be discerning about whom you're asking, that you don't ask them in a non-public place, and that you don't follow them if you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. I have a policy of just not following anyone anywhere; I can understand directions given. See how helpful it is? Right. Left. Straight Ahead. Knowing how to ask, “Where is...?” and being able to hear and understand the directions is safer, smarter, and gets your where you're going.

Two weeks. Give yourself two weeks to learn this and you will be a good traveling citizen of the world. Promise. If you have a smartphone, iTranslate from Google does a completely acceptable (and free) job of translating the phrases mentioned into virtually any language. Practice 30 minutes a day for two weeks. You'll amaze your friends, you'll feel better, you'll look better in those tight pants. But wait, there's more! If you do feel like learning a new language more in depth there are a few free-ish sites such as Duolingo that exist. And for more in depth proficiency, the ONLY program I will recommend is Pimsleur, which I can personally vouch had me speaking effectively within 30 days, 30 minutes a day!

So luckily, we made it through Holland. We made it through Germany without issue, and problems. Now we are in Slovenia, and unluckily I don't speak Slovenian. Luckily I'm learning with a little help from my new Slovenian friends...