Having travelled to at least ten countries whose language I couldn't speak and hardly read, I have had to learn ways of getting someone's attention and making them understand what I want them to do, even on a very restricted range of phrases. Thankfully, I have a core belief that everyone is nice and willing to help me out. The most important things you can pack for your travels are a smile and a sense of humour, good pointing practice and your best helpless look. This helps me remember with a smile instead of a heart attack the time when a Chinese taxi driver didn't take me to my business contact "AKEAN", but instead to the local IKEA in Shenzhen. Not sure what he made of me giggling on the back seat.
If you're feeling the cold shivers reading this, you've already caught me out. I've missed out the most important thing to pack: courage! Of course it's intimidating to walk up to a German shopkeeper and try to string "How much is this in Euros, please?" together. But pointing and going "dieses? euro?" while showing the numbers with your hands, is that hard? Will he laugh at you? I don't think so! You're likely to learn your first word there and then, just make sure it's ten, not thirty. Or learn how to say "let's say ten euros?" in German (Just in case, it's "Also, sagen wir zehn Euro?").
Now pack your new tools for a mini break!
Make a note of the expression list below. These are my absolute travel essentials. Then try to get by in a simple interaction (going to the corner shop, taking a taxi, having a cup of tea in a café) using just these - even if it's in England and you're English. It might be a bit too awkward in your local, so I'd recommend trying this at least 10 miles away from your home, where no one knows you. How did you get on? Did you find yourself in a crash course in sign language? What was the reaction?
- Please/thank you
- You're welcome
- Hello/good bye
- I don't understand
- I'm a vegetarian/I eat halal/I'm allergic to...
- I need help
- Go slowly!
- Excuse me...
- Where is the toilet?
You'll notice that this list contains two types of expression: pleasantries and very straightforward phrases. For now, don't mix the two. Don't worry about polite paddings like "Please could you.." or "I'm very sorry, but...". Your goal is to be helped, to communicate that you don't understand and to find someone who speaks your language if necessary. Then say thank you.
I would absolutely love your thoughts on this post, so please do post a comment and let me know how you got on - even if you gave up 3 words in.