Avoid the Oops — Not Trying the Language

Katerina, my new Greek friend who taught me the proper Greek alphabet
© Stephanie Glaser

During a layover from Athens to Amsterdam, I took advantage of a free minibus tour of Budapest, arranged by the airline company on which I flew. Because the tour was conducted completely in Greek, I didn’t learn much about Budapest, but I befriended the seven other travelers on the van who were all from Greece.

The only Greek word that I knew was “Efharisto,” (thank you) so whenever I could use it, I did.

Katerina, a seven-year-old girl who was part of the minivan crew, giggled and said something to Gabriella, one of the two English speakers in the group. Gabriella told me that Katerina found it funny that the only thing I could say in Greek was “thank you.”

Through Gabriella, I told Katerina I actually knew the Greek alphabet. I spared relaying the details of how I had learned her language’s alphabet, along with such skills as playing quarters and other drinking games, while in a sorority at college. Then in a moment of silliness, I sang her the version I had learned courtesy of Delta Gamma.

For a minute, as everyone sat in silence, I thought I had offended them. Then all the Greeks broke out into uproarious laughter. Clearly they got a big kick out of the Alpha Beta Gamma ditty, and they had a hard time composing themselves again.

Although slightly embarrassed, I never felt like they thought I was an idiot. Entertaining, yes, but stupid, no. In fact, Katerina and her grandfather offered to give me a proper lesson in the alphabet. They patiently waited for me to repeat each letter after them.

The Greek lesson expanded as I started pointing to various items in the vicinity and hunched my shoulders implying, “what is this?”  After they gave me the Greek word, I told them the English equivalent. Ultimately, I was glad I took the risk of sounding crazy because it was a huge bonding experience.

Communicating like a caveman or Cookie Monster in any language is a risk worth taking. While speaking in another language may seem scary or feel embarrassing, it’s a crucial part of travel. Here are several reasons why you should at least try the language of the country in which you are traveling.

1. It’s okay that you don’t sound perfect.

My mom Judy Schuck, a former English teacher, is the grammar hammer — ever since I can remember she has corrected my grammar.

© Evan-Amos

Maybe that is why Judy, who is truly an adventurous traveler, hesitates when trying speak another language while traveling. Often, because she wants her statements to come out grammatically correct, this can hold her back.

In 1989, in Spain, when we were traveling together and my brain hurt from trying to understand and translate Spanish for several days, I blew up at Jude while we were ordering ice cream.

“Can you tell them that I want a vanilla cone?” she asked.

“MOM, just point to the flavor and say ‘POR FAVOR’ they will understand you!”

If you think too much about grammar and precision, you get tongue tied. Seriously, your tongue is essentially a hostage.

 According to Judy: “I want to speak correctly, and I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe it’s because I taught grammar. Somehow I feel like I should not be saying [something] unless it’s correct. So, I pause so long that my daughters say to me that the person I was talking to has left.”

— Let go of the perfection. 

“There are a lot of people who want to travel, but they don’t want to speak,” says Sheree Beddingfield, who speaks Spanish fluently and has traveled extensively through South America. “Maybe they speak a little bit of Spanish or a little bit of French but they don’t use it, because they don’t want to sound stupid,” she adds.

 “There’s something about letting go of that perfection, You don’t look perfect; you don’t sound perfect. You kind of make a fool of yourself just by talking,” she adds. Ultimately, Beddingfield says, letting go of that worry will free you up.

2. Not everybody speaks English, and they shouldn’t have to.

True, English is spoken widely throughout the world. But do not make the mistake of thinking that everyone will speak or understand English. More importantly, as guests in another country, travelers have the obligation to learn some of the language. When you are traveling in Cambodia, you should try Khmer. When you are in Brazil, try Portuguese. In Kenya, try Swahili.

3.  Learn the phrase: “Do you speak English?”  in the language of the country you are visiting.

Otherwise, that question in English makes an assumption or sets up an expectation that the locals already do or should speak English.

I’m updating information at an Amsterdam hostel
© Stephanie Glaser

While traveling on a writing assignment updating a chapter on the Netherlands for travel guide, I had to ask questions and check facts constantly. Typically, the Dutch speak English (they usually speak French and German, too) However, I would always enter a shop or museum and ask, “Sprek U Engels?” Do you speak English?

Then, of course, they would always answer, “Yes, a little bit.” (Always a funny statement because even small children and elderly grandfathers are fluent.)

I was told by one shopkeeper that he was surprised that I asked if he spoke English in Dutch since most Americans come in and think people should cater to their language. Ultimately, people appreciate that you do not expect them to know English.

© Rdsmith4; Wikimedia Commons

Kathy Keidel is a fourth grade teacher who went on a Fulbright Educator program in Japan for three weeks. At some points of her trip, Keidel was in rural areas of Japan where no one spoke any English.

“You at least need to make an effort to use their language and don’t assume that everyone is going to be speaking English, which I think many people do,” Keidel adds.

4. By speaking the locals’  language, you show respect.

With regard to learning words in a country’s national language or even dialects, “there is no other option,“ according to Nathan Ward who has traveled all over the world and communicated in languages like Tibetan, Swahili and Mongolian.

© Stephanie Glaser

“You should learn [the language] beforehand,” according to Ward. “It’s respectful and you’ll expand your own horizons and abilities.”

Ward also lived in Bhutan and, despite the fact that English is spoken heavily and taught in schools, Ward and his wife Andrea made an effort to learn Dzongkha, the national language.  His theory is that you will appear ignorant if you don’t give speaking a country’s language a go. “You sound like an idiot if you don’t try.”

5. At the very least, you should always learn “please” and “thank you.”

She may be apprehensive about having a conversation, but Judy Schuck has a rule about using common courtesies. “I learn how to say “please” and “thank you” in every language even though I have really struggled with it in some places like China where it’s such a tonal language. But I do really try to learn ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

Kathy Keidel agrees with this practice, “I think definitely you need to learn at least the courtesy pieces to be respectful and you need to learn about [a country’s] culture as well so you don’t do anything offensive.”

6. It’s an adventure to try to speak the language.

Kurt in the Ubud market making friends with the ladies.
© Stephanie Glaser

For many people, part of the joy of travel and exploration is interacting with the locals. You never know what opportunities may open up because you are attempting to communicate.

Sheree Beddingfield, who has made her share of mistakes in learning and speaking Spanish, says, “I think language is fun. It’s a game and you may not play the game very well, but at least you’re having fun.”

“That is the fun part of traveling,” she maintains. “Teach me three words in Turkish and I’m going to walk into the Turkish market and I’m going to use those three words every chance I get. Because it’s fun.”

Additionally, many languages are fairly easy to learn or to try. Ward, who took several trips into Mongolia, acquired up to a 700-word vocabulary in Mongolian.

“It never matters if you butcher [the language],” he says. “The important thing is trying and to try as much as possible.” 

A senior at Buena Vista High School in Colorado, Nate Weese went on a school trip to France. Unafraid to use his French, Weese became the go-to person to speak for some of the other students on the trip. “I just kind of dove right in,” he says.  “I think that’s the best way to do it.”

According to Weese, trying the language, “definitely changes the atmosphere for you. It makes you want to go back — just because of being in a French class, you actually get to apply what you’ve learned to somewhere.”

5. Native speakers won’t judge you.

French locals at a restaurant in the South of France
© Debbie Bacarach

Originally from Ecuador, Maggie Falconi now organizes Spanish classes and clubs in public schools in the US. Additionally, she leads travel groups all over the world.

During one of her group tours in Argentina, a man inadvertently ended up saying in Spanish: “My pee is pink.” Falconi says, as you can imagine, both the locals as well as the whole tour group were incredibly entertained by that miscommunication. “We laugh together. And now he knows [not to say that],” she adds.

Falconi, of course, also has a South American’s point of view, “We don’t laugh at you. We laugh together.” 

Her advice for travelers who are apprehensive about speaking is: “Just talk. That is the way to connect [with locals]. They love that you try. That is the way to make more friends, and you don’t have to be perfect.”

Another way to look at the situation is to reverse the roles. As a former dean of students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Judy Schuck worked with many students who were learning English for the first time.  “I don’t judge people for whom English is a second or third language. I don’t judge them if they say something without the right ending.”

6. It is an accomplishment to communicate in another language.

Let’s face it. When you ask for and get the correct item at a market or you get on the right train because you spoke to someone, it’s a great feeling. It’s victory!

One of Kathy Keidel’s challenges during her trip to Japan was being required to explore a remote part of the country where no one spoke English. “We did end up getting to the location that we wanted to go — which was fabulous,” Keidel maintains.

We wrote Haiku poetry while we were there. [It was a] very Japanese day. We came back and we felt so good.

It was pretty scary to not run into any English-speaking people and it was just the two of us and we’re thousands of miles away thinking are we even going to get back to where we need to be. It all went well and we just felt so accomplished.”

Finally, Judy Schuck also found victory or a semi-victory in Barcelona. When she traveled with her daughter Suzanne (my sister) in Spain, Suzanne convinced her to try to speak. When they passed a man on the street who was trying to get them to dine in his restaurant, Judy got her Spanish on.

“I said, ‘No gracias. No tienes hambre.’ And I was so proud of myself until he starts laughing.  And then I realized that I had just told him, because I didn’t pay attention to all the nuances or grammar points of the language, that HE wasn’t hungry.

Not only did I tell him that he wasn’t hungry, but I told him that in the familiar pronoun that you’re only supposed to use with family and relatives —certainly not between strangers. But he laughed and I laughed and it was all fine.”

Restaurant in Spain
© Stephanie Glaser

5 thoughts on “Avoid the Oops — Not Trying the Language

  1. Great post Steph. I love the fact that your Mother is a grammer hammer!! My Step-Mum constantly corrects me when I am speaking to her, and one of my oldest friends bemoans the fact that since I have discovered blogging, my appaling grammatical errors are now clearly visible for all the world to see – she gives me a lecture everytime I go back to London.

    Having said all of that, I’m proud to report that my Bahasa Indonesia is coming on in leaps and bounds. I have added 3 very rude words to my vocabulary this week and I can’t wait for an opportunity to use them 🙂

  2. Lottie — awesome that you’re getting the Bahasa going! It’s always so handy to know the rude words and the profanity. Even if you never direct the word at anyone. I still swear in German and Spanish around my kids. However, they pick up on that easily and know I’m using “bad” words.

    I totally get the grammar breakdown via blogging! In fact, I read this post over after I hit publish, and I was mortified that there were some rather big errors. That’s funny that your Mum and your friend corrects you, too. I happen to think your posts are written very well!

    Keep me updated on the use of your new vocabulary words. Maybe you can use them when you see another naked dude on the streets! 🙂

  3. Steph, thanks for this “reminder”! I’m already wondering how much communicating I’m going to be able to do successfully on my travels next year, but I did lull myself to sleep the other night by pretending I was in a food shop in Paris and trying to tell the shopkeeper that I wanted “200g of ham, please” and “a little bit of cheese”, and so on. I was kind of pleased that I could, for the most part, still remember a lot of little things. Between my and Mum’s French, and her German, we should be able to be understood – or at least we can ask, “Excusez-moi, vous parlez Anglais??” :p

    It also reminds me of calling places like Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands and Denmark recently – when I asked the person on the other end, “Do you speak English?”, the answer was often, “Oh, a little” (said sheepishly in a somewhat worried tone). They then proceeded to speak with me in perfect Oxford English!

  4. I love your observations about speaking the local language, or at least trying to. I’ve found that it is an important step in showing respect for the people in whose country you are a guest. Lots of fun, and they don’t mind at all that you are mangling their language. Now, my Russian consists of usual Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and “Im sorry, I don’t understand Russian”, and I’m learning to read the alphabet.

    • Thank you so much for the comment. I completely agree with you in that trying to speak the language of the country in which you are visiting. It’s also fun as you pointed out! Thanks again for your insights — Cheers! Steph 🙂

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