Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Travel advice? This is the first such post for this blog. But I’ve been asked enough times how I travel in countries where I don’t speak the language — and keep in mind that I am only a middling linguist, not one of those people who speak six or seven languages fluently. I know such people; so annoying.
No, I speak only two languages fluently, and then I dabble in a few others to varying degrees of proficiency. But I have never had any serious problems in the course of my travels as a result of language barriers. Below are some tricks of the trade that have helped me get around.
1. Learn the Language
This is the most obvious and the least useful piece of advice, so I’ll put it first. Try to learn something of the language of the country you’re going to before you go, if it’s not a language you already know. Obviously most of us will not have the time or retention to learn more than a few words on the flight over, which leads to my next couple of tips...
2. Learn the Numbers
Beyond words like “hello,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” one of the most useful things to learn in any new language is the numerals. If you can count in a language, you will have a far easier time buying things (or even bargaining for them), understanding questions of time (when does the bus leave?), saying your room number, and doing other equally important things.
3. Speak Boldly
Many of us are afraid of massacring the local language. Or rather, many of us are embarrassed to try to speak an unfamiliar language, knowing that our efforts are bound to be very poor indeed. This is an example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the adequate. Yes, you’re trying to speak a totally unfamiliar language; you’re pronouncing words you didn’t know just yesterday. So instead of being embarrassed of the mistakes, be proud of yourself if anyone understands you at all. Speak boldly: As E .B. White once said, if you come across a word you don’t know how to pronounce, then make sure to say it loudly, because there is no point in compounding ignorance with timidity.
In most countries, people will appreciate your effort, and if you can get across anything then you’re a step above where you were before. There are exceptions: The French will not appreciate the effort, and Chinese dialects are nearly impossible to understand without proper tonal pronunciation. But in most parts of the world, fortune favors the bold.
4. Know Something About Linguistics...
You don’t need to go get a Ph.D. in linguistics, but keep basic principles in mind. For example, know the consonant swaps that tend to happen when you move from one language into a related language. Voiced and unvoiced consonant pairs — D/T, B/P, V/F, etc. — may be swapped for each other. Bs and Vs tend to get swapped, as do Ps and Fs, and Fs and Hs. “Fish” in English and “Fisch” in German become “pescado” in Spanish and “peixe” in Portuguese — from “piscis” in Latin.
This requires that you know something about language families. In the above example, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin are all in the Indo-European clan, but English and German are more closely related as Germanic languages, whereas Spanish and Portuguese are Romance languages and direct descendants of Latin. So the former group held to the “F,” while the latter had the “P.”
This may sound academic, but I once held an almost-conversation with a woman in Romania, not because I spoke any Romanian, but simply by knowing that Romanian is the closest living relative to Latin but with a significant overlay of loan words from Slavic languages.
5. ... And Make the Most of Cognates
Fish/Fisch/pescado/peixe is an example of cognates, similar words in different languages. Make the most of them, both in learning words in the new language and in guessing words you don’t know. English-speakers have a distinct advantage in this regard, because many modern concepts were first invented in English, and the words for the same ideas in other languages are often English loan words. A telephone is called “telephone” or something like it in many languages; a computer is often a “computer”; and the Internet is almost always the “Internet.” Again there are exceptions; a handful of important world languages resist modern loan words and try to come up with words of their own. But it’s a good bet most of the time.
6. Remember that All Conversations Are Contextual
Exchanges don’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, almost invariably they serve the purposes of the contexts in which they happen. When you’re checking into a hotel, the receptionist’s words will probably relate to your reservation and what time breakfast is. When you’re ordering lunch, words such as “chicken” and “salad” and “drink” are likely to come up. When a curious local wants to make conversation with the foreigner, the first words spoken are almost always “Where are you from?”
Being sensitive to contexts vastly reduces the vocabulary you have to have at the ready. And indeed you can direct the context. Not sure what the curious local will ask you next? Then speak boldly and ask if s/he has any children. How many? How old? The numerals you learned ought to come in handy now.
That’s why eavesdropping in an unfamiliar language is so hard: you have no context.
7. Never Underestimate the Power of Vigorous Gesticulation
When I was in college, a professor asked me in all seriousness (actually, he was German, so I don’t know) whether I had any Italian heritage, because of the way I gesticulated when I talked. So perhaps this final tip is easier for me than for others. But in fact you can get across a lot by pointing at things and waving your arms around, especially if you put a little thought into your game of charade. You won’t be able to form a compound sentence in the subjunctive mood with gestures, but most of the time you won’t need to express anything that complicated.
You don’t have to be a Parisian mime. But don’t forget that the beginning of all language is mimesis.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."