Language When Traveling Abroad

When traveling outside one’s country, language can be a barrier, a nuisance, or part of the adventure. As much as I can, I try to make it the latter. Case in point: the trip I just completed to Poland.

Though I was told many people I would deal with as a tourist in Poland would speak English, it seems to me this is more true of the younger generations only. Dealing with women in their 40s and up in the train station cashiers, for example, required a mix of my basic Polish phrases, train schedules I had already printed, and, at times, hand signals. (Glad to report that I did well enough with no mishaps, though that makes the blog entry less exciting…)

Besides learning the pleasantries, I focused on learning the numbers, and questions and words related to transportation (how much did the fare cost, what is the schedule, etc.) and food (gotta know what I ate so I can describe it later!). The most important phrases/words for me to learn were those related to transportation since we were going to be doing a lot of bus-ing and train-ing. Last thing I wanted was to be in a smaller town trying to get back and missing the last train because of a mis-understood time or ending up somewhere totally different… (hey, that is not too far-fetched: it happened to me flying from Boston to Atlanta in 1994 and that WAS supposed to be a language I was fluent in… but I digress).

I was able to mumble my way through canned phrases (or made-up phrases I assembled myself!)  from my Learn Polish podcast. Among the phrases that I used the most were:

  • How much is the fare?
  • I don’t understand.
  • How much does this cost?
  • One one-way ticket to Krakow for today
  • I would like today’s schedule for buses to Wadowice
  • And everyone’s favorite: Do you speak English?

It was neat, after a couple of days, to have the language in its written form begin to make sense. For example, I began seeing words I had learned used in signs in other contexts and was able to get the sense of the signs. (I am a geek, I know. Languages fascinate me.).  I also got to enjoy hearing the language and began to more rapidly recognize numbers thrown at me in response to a “how much does it cost?” question.

If I have to boil down language advice for travelers that I believe applies anywhere is learn the pleasantries, at minimum. Even if people in the country you visit speak your language as a second or third language, saying the hello, good mornings, please, thank you, etc. in their language goes a long way. Everyone likes to be acknowledged and I believe addressing someone in their language acknowledges them, no matter how poorly the words come out. While visiting remote villages in Tanzania, I was always asked to make a small speech as a visiting American from my organization (the first time that threw me off as no one had warned me and I am not good at speeches).  I had learned ahead of my trip basic Swahili; enough to say hi, I am glad to here, I am American, and I like your country (all true statements).  It was cool to see them smile when they realized I was actually trying to speak Swahili though the smile may have been half being amused at my poor attempt!  I felt it was a better connection than had I stayed remote and relying 100% on a translator.  If you can do more than the pleasantries, that is great.

A final tip is that making a short note you carry with you (electronically or on paper) with the phrases you most expect to use.  In my Poland trip, these would be the transportation-related ones since I was going to be self-reliant on arranging for that. That way, you avoid fumbling through a dictionary or to the back of a travel guide at key moments with a line forming behind you!

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