Since coming to work in Korea, I’ve traveled to more than 30 countries on holidays and semester breaks. Occasionally I run into Korean students and backpackers, which is always exciting. Often they speak excellent English, but many times I hear them make the same sort of comment: “I was disappointed that many people in other countries can’t speak English with me.” (In particular, I met several people who told me this over the summer in Morocco and Spain.)
We often make the mistake of thinking that since English is the so-called “global language”, it will work for us anywhere. And I would say that it usually does to a point, at least in most tourist areas. It’s really easy to wander off the beaten track, though, outside of the range of English.
My advice to you is the same as what travel books often suggest -- learn a few useful phrases in the native language, no matter where you are going, as well as learning them in English. Some might be obvious, such as “where is”, “when is”, basic numbers, hello, goodbye, and thank you. I would also suggest a few more…
How much? / Too much! / Discount, please. à Let’s face it. If you’re travelling, you’re going to buy stuff. And in many cases you are meant to bargain, or to just be given a ridiculously high price at first. Besides getting some knowledge about how much things cost before going shopping, you should know how to ask prices in the native language, comment on what is too high, and ask for something lower.
I’m sorry. / Please.à In addition to “thank you”, these are what we call ‘magic words’. You’d be amazed at how quickly a bad situation (or even a good one) can improve when you say these words respectfully in the native language.
Beautiful (handsome, pretty, cute, etc.) à A great way to warm people up and get some friendly treatment is to drop a compliment. Based on my past experience, if you tell a Vietnamese Hmong tribal woman that her dress is beautiful, she’ll give you a stick of sugar cane and a cup of rice liquor as an amused “thank you”. Learn a word to compliment people’s clothes or even face; it might work wonders! Just make sure you’re using the right word and not making an offensive move in the native culture.
Do you have change? / Do you take credit cards?à I always see travellers who get into difficult situations by only carrying ‘big bills’ (large amounts of money instead of small change or coins). If, for instance, you’re on an elephant trek somewhere, not many villagers will be able to give you smaller money – or take credit cards! These phrases need to be known and used, especially when preparing to take local transportation or eat in a tiny restaurant.
I need ________. / I want to buy ________. àThese sentences, when learned, should always be paired with a small notebook, one where you can draw pictures of things and point to them. A friend of mine last year in Indonesia carried around a tiny notebook that she already filled with drawings, sketches ranging from safety pins to shoe insoles. She told me she had drawn the pictures on the plane before arriving and had already used them several times before meeting me.
Train / Bus / Boat / Ticket / Schedule / What stop is this? à Finding and using public transportation is often self-explanatory – but not always. Knowing the word for ticket is especially helpful, and I’ve also found that asking about stops is absolutely imperative. In many countries the train and bus systems don’t announce which stop is coming, and you may not be able to see the signs in time, either.
Higher numbersà Learning 1-10 is a great start, and very beneficial. But you should always also consider what money denominations are most often used in the country you visit. For example, in Korea, a traveler would certainly want to know how to say 1000 and 10,000 before negotiating a sale.
Basic necessities àIt should be common sense that you might need certain words while travelling, such as ‘hospital’, ‘bathroom’ and ‘police’. Also earn to say simple things like ‘time’ (as in to ask what time it is), ‘map’, ‘cash machine’, ‘translator’, ‘batteries’, ‘outlet’, etc. Think about what you might need before you go, and study up.
It’s true that your guidebook or phrase book would probably contain all these things, but that might not help you on the spot. And in some cases, when you’re standing on the roadside scanning your book, you become one of the targeted ‘stereotypical tourists’.
The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is to print a basic native language “cheat sheet” from the internet and download a few language podcasts to your mp3. Listen and study a little on the plane, train, or bus, and you’ll be ready when you reach your destination.
English is immensely useful when travelling, and I can’t imagine going abroad without it. But it’s not everything. If you want to stray further and stand firmer, just learning the basics in the native tongue is all you really need to do.
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