I am writing this as I zoom towards Paris on the Eurostar. My head is a mess as I try to recall as much schoolboy French as I can muster. After my English native tongue (and waving my hands about as a British Sign Language user) French is probably the foreign language I feel I know best. But after 5 years of secondary school rote sentence learning…Je parle un peu le français! It frustrates me that my ability to learn a language in depth always appears to escape me. I suspect that to truly speak the language you are trying to learn you must be immersed in the country. Nevertheless, to my credit, I ALWAYS give my language skills a shot when in a foreign country. On this trip I will certainly be using ‘s’il vous plait’ and ‘merci beaucoup’ and whatever else I can get away with. Even though I know I will either be blasted back with a response in super-fast French or even worse, a disdainful, irritated English; I think it is important that you learn and use a few basic phrases when you travel.
Trips in the past few years have taken me to places where I knew little, if any, of the local language…but, I tried! And, I think that is the key point. To try some of the basics (despite your host’s excellent English) is an act of politeness; respect towards your fellow man and their often beloved language. To insist on using English (or your own language) when learning a simple ‘thank you’ in the native tongue is so easy smacks of ignorance and a certain laziness on the part of the traveller. One or two words – that is all it takes! Throwing an ‘efharisto’ and ‘parakalo’ around Greece resulted in lots of praise an admiration, particularly in restaurants, and with this a free carafe of house wine and food on a number of occasions. Though, I thought it best not to reveal my Greek heritage to them as it might be considered cheating and obtaining goods by deception; nonetheless, the principle remains – using a bit of the local language has its benefits for both the local and the traveller.
So, how do I do it?! Am I spending the weeks before a trip listening to language courses or studying the books intensively? My trips to Latvia and Lithuania last year sent me into a mild panic about my inability to say a single word in these two countries. This was easily solved by a simple search on the Internet where I found the BBC helpfully provide a host of excellent basic phrase lists with audio clips to aid pronunciation as part of their languages ‘Quick Fix’ section of their website – http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/other/quickfix/. I simply printed the words and phrases I wanted onto a small piece of paper and the week before the trip carried them with me in my pocket; practicing them in the supermarket queue or whilst on the loo! By the time I got to Riga and Vilnius, I was saying ‘paldies’ and ‘aciu’ with gleeful abandon! Although, I did not receive any clear signs but for the odd grin from these stoic Eastern Europeans that my use of the local lingo was welcomed , I did notice a couple of times when using English (often at volume) by some fellow travellers was not received as well by the locals, with confusion and heated repetition by coffee shop staff to ensure they were giving the traveller what they wanted to purchase.
I would recommend that you make sure you look out for language help on maps and in guide books. The excellent In Your Pocket city guides series are free, often found in hostels and bars and provide you with the language basics as well as some hilarious phrases you can use to pull in bars and clubs! Finally, be brave! You are probably never going to see the waiter or shop assistant you are muddling through your basic German with again. And if your friends and family are travelling with you; they may snigger at first, but once you have secured those train tickets or that extra special service from your appreciative ‘foreign buddy’ they will be laughing on the other side of their face and enjoying the benefits of your linguistic mastery!
Good luck! And, for me…bonne chance!
So, I am back on the Eurostar, whizzing back to London! And, how did I fare? Let us just say I was wrong! I predicted an utter disaster, but was surprised to find my first attempt at French, at the brilliant Paris Plage, was greeted with a warm, knowing smile from the lady behind the counter and resulted in me getting the coffee I wanted. And, this trend continued for much of the trip, with my French holding up in a variety of day to day situations. Also, hanging out with a bunch of francophones, who slipped seamlessly between English and French certainly helped build my confidence as they made it look so easy, using phrases and words that I understood surprisingly well. Thus, helping me realise my French is not as bad as I thought, but there is still room for improvement. A return trip to Paris, perhaps?!
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