The more you travel, the more you will understand the importance of learning the local language wherever you go. Even if most people speak English, they will appreciate your efforts to express yourself in their local tongue. Some people may still reply to you in English, even after you have very meticulously put together what you want to say, but don’t let this get you down! People who want to practice their English will be eager to speak with you in your native tongue. It’s also a great way to exchange tips in your language for tips in theirs!
Well, you’ve gotta start somewhere, and what better first word than “hello”! It is a wonderfully simple way to break the ice in any situation. In some languages, like Italian (ciao) and Hungarian (szia), the informal version of “hello” can be used as both “hello” and “goodbye.” How easy is that? From here you can learn how to ask people “how are you?” to keep the conversation rolling. Keep in mind that in many languages it is very important to differentiate between formal and informal greetings. A great way to start practicing whatever language is spoken where you are traveling to is with the flight attendants on your flight there. They love it and will often take the time to chat with you about their country and, if you’re lucky, hook you up with some extra dessert.
2. Get Your Sign On!
Learning what signs say in other languages is an awesome way to expand upon basic yet necessary vocabulary. As Americans, we come from a world well-acquainted with semiotics, or, the language of signs. We see pictures of say, an airplane, and immediately understand that it means “airport.” Another example is seeing the stick figure like images of a man and woman next to each other and knowing that it means “restroom” or “toilets.”
When traveling, you will encounter variations of the same signs, though sometimes they may look a little bit different, like the signs for “toilets” in the UK and Ireland being on a yellow background. Or, signs with words on them will say the same word that you are used to but in the local language. So you will figure out that the sign above the door must be signaling the way out and therefore learn that VÝCHOD means “EXIT” in Czech (not to be confused with vchod, meaning “entrance”). You’ll also be surprised to see how many signs are still the same in other languages and how they vary slightly from country to country!
3. Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Once you’ve got your sign reading basics down, you might find yourself in a situation where you can’t find the sign that you’re looking for. Not to fret! Learning how to ask “where is/are” and a few basic locations will do wonders for you during your travels. Here are some key words to know for asking “where”: toilets, ticket sales, entrance/exit, the train/metro/bus station, the airport, restaurant, shops/stores, tourist information point, police station, and last, but not least, the American embassy/consulate. There are loads more words to learn for asking this, but these are just a few to get you started. From here you can also learn descriptive words like “the closest” or “the most popular” for when you want to choose a restaurant to check out or realize that you forgot your toothbrush and need to head to a store before they close!
4. Alpha, Beta, Whata?
Even worse than not being able to find the sign that you’re looking for is finding lots of signs that are all written in an alphabet that you’re unfamiliar with. This has happened to all of us. While you are well aware that the Greek alphabet is different to our own, all that work on Greek etymologies you did in 8th grade might not do you much good. Nor will being able to read the letters on your older siblings’ fraternity and/or sorority sweatshirts.
You will have to take some extra time before you arrive to countries like Greece or Japan to learn what your basic words actually look like once you are in the country. It may seem like a lot of work, but once you are familiar with certain letters and words, you will have fun piecing together what you have learned in order to continue expanding upon your vocabulary as you travel and get to know the language further.
5. Mind Your Manners
Now that we’ve mentioned knowing the difference between informal and formal speech, it’s time to learn your “pleases” and “thank yous.” Even if you speak the language in a very broken manner, throwing in a “please” will only help you, as well as help the person understand that you are trying to ask for something (more often than not, you will find yourself playing the guessing game when communicating in unfamiliar languages). Once that person figures out and provides you with whatever you were asking for, throw the biggest “thank you” their way! They will adore that and be so happy that they were able to help. Nothing like forging new friendships with a little good old fashioned etiquette.
6. Live and Learn
Once you’ve figured out how to ace the above phrases, people might mistake you for knowing far more than you actually do. Not to worry! It is completely acceptable to tell someone, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying, but I am still learning!” They will totally get that and most people will be more than happy to help, whether they speak any English or not. It’s always good to keep smiling and not get too frustrated if you get a bit lost in translation. We all do at some time or another. While you might never become fully fluent in your language of choice, whether it’s Spanish or Arabic, you should also always be prepared for hand gestures. Lots of hand gestures.
7. Sending Out an SOS
When we travel, we never know what might happen, which makes asking for help absolutely essential. You might need help with something small, like asking how to purchase tickets for the tram, or it might be something more serious, like losing your phone at the beach. Whatever it is, you need to learn how to ask for help, no matter where you go. You might find yourself in a situation like I did TODAY.
I was driving to an animal shelter near a farming community just outside of Cape Town. I drove through many unpaved roads and lo and behold, right into a sandpit. Yes, a sandpit. I sat in my car, assessing my situation, and noticed that there was a tractor not far away. I was in a rural enough area where the closest thing to English I was gonna get out of anyone was Afrikaans, so I climbed out of the sandpit and walked up to the women in the field, pointed at my car and said “My motor gaan nie. Help, asseblief,” (My car does not go. Help, please.) and pointed at the tractor (okay, so knowing “help” in Afrikaans was admittedly pretty easy to remember). I was smiled at, laughed at, but most importantly, helped safely out of my situation! So again, not only learn how to ask for help, but be polite, smile, and use those hand gestures!
8. Prepare for the Trials and Errors of Unknown Foods
One thing that everyone HAS to do when traveling is, you guessed it, eat! Whether you eat out most of the time or prefer shopping for food and cooking in the kitchen of your accommodation, you’re going to have to learn your food words in the local language sooner or later. Get acquainted with the typical foods and ingredients of the country that you will be traveling to and therefore eating in beforehand. That way you won’t struggle reading menus and consequently receive your German sausage in the form of a pickled herring (surprise!). These sort of things are bound to happen no matter how prepared you think you are, so always try to keep a positive attitude and open mind to accidental new food experiences!
9. Dang, It Feels Good to be a Student
Whenever you travel, whether it’s in your own country or abroad, always be sure to ask for student discounts. Most tourist attractions such as museums or historical locations will have student discounts on tickets (sometimes they are FREE for students) or even special student days. Many countries in Europe, especially the UK, will also give student discounts on clothing, which is great for keeping stylish while enjoying the many cultural aspects that these countries have to offer. It’s also not a bad idea to learn how to ask how much things cost!
10. Until We Meet Again!
We all have to say this final phrase sooner or later! Hasta la vista! Ci vediamo! À bientôt! เห็นคุณเร็ว ๆ นี้! Hẹn sớm gặp lại! Do zobaczenia wkrótce! Sien jou later!