I’m fairly well travelled and only speak fluent English. Luckily, this has never been a problem as English is a universal language that most countries close to us speak well. I’m not overly pleased I just speak one language; it was the only subject I struggled with at school as I just couldn’t remember/take in the new words very easily. As an adult, I haven’t tried to learn another language properly, assuming it’s too late and not naturally in my skill set anyway.
I try to balance this out however, as I hate the thought of coming across cocky and lazy for not making the effort when it comes to language barriers abroad. While I know English is enough 99% of the time, it’s common courtesy to try out the language of your visiting country and good to get out of your comfort zone for a little while.
My mini mission per language
The Internet is a wonderful thing. For free (Get Jaunty loves free) you can go online and learn the core phrases you’ll need in each country. For me, that’s the normal phrases such as saying hello, goodbye, please, thank you, as well as travel specific, ‘I’m looking for the train station’ and ‘I’m trying to get to this hostel’ as examples. My biggest fear is getting lost somewhere and just not knowing how to navigate back. Maybe my phone can’t get signal and I’ll need to rely on the kindness of strangers, which’ll go a lot better if I can roughly explain the situation.
Websites I use
Obviously Google translate. Mainly Google translate. So, I put in the key phrases I want to learn, maybe five or so for each language as there’s a lot to go through, and then put them in a spreadsheet. I have this on Google Drive on my phone and then set the documents to be accessible offline. For each, I practice a couple of times with pronunciation as Google offer sound bites of each submitted phrase.
A few other good pages I’ve found include this hub page of important phrases in over forty languages by the BBC, which is fantastic for me as I can bookmark the url on my phone and access it on the go, no matter the country I’m in. You can also download as an mp3 as well but I doubt I’ll do this as it doesn’t seem necessary.
Another site I found was infoplease, where common phrases from English are translated into other popular languages. As you can select a word-set to learn, it doesn’t overload you with too much information.
Is English enough?
Ultimately, I believe the answer is yes as I’ve never experienced any real blockers from using it abroad, something that’s very fortunate. I find the best feedback and interaction is to give it a go, say hello in the native language and maybe also add that you don’t speak their language properly and go from there. People are going to appreciate you putting the effort in and it gets the conversation off on the right foot. With this in mind, I find the phrases I mentioned above essential, especially in shops and restaurants.
A few times, I’ve found that native speakers prefer you to speak in English as it’s more understandable than a botched attempt of their own language: I encountered this in Bruges a few summers ago when out for waffles. In this case, I just have to go with the flow as I’m the one who needs to be understood, not the other way around.
My other technique to defeat a language barrier is with a great big smile and friendly sloth gestures.
Is this what most people do or am I letting the side down?