January 20 2012 by Sam Lowe
Before embarking upon a journey to a foreign land where English is not the primary language, my wife and I try to acquaint ourselves with some of the more common terms we will more than likely be using during the trip. Simple things, like "please," "thank you," "you're welcome," and, of course, the more important phrases like "two beers" and "where's the bathroom?"
We have found that it's a great ice-breaker because the locals respect our senior-oriented attempts and at least know we're trying. And over the years, we have also picked up more of the language because people are always willing to help us get beyond the hand-gesturing and loud-talking phases that usually accompany our attempts to communicate. Especially when asking for directions.
But be aware that there's also a pitfall to this practice:
Don't pretend to know more than you actually know - I have fallen into that trap at least twice. In Mexico, I took a cab and, upon reaching my destination, I asked the driver "how much?" but in Spanish. He answered in Spanish. I had no idea what he said. He turned around and very slowly gave me the amount in English. It was most embarrassing.
During a trip to Portugal, I looked at a menu and observed "tapas," so I decided to try some. I was very hungry so I added "mucho" to my order. The waiter gave me a strange look, but left. He returned a short time later with an enormous plate overflowing with little fish, more than I could possibly eat at one sitting, even if I knew what they were. I had accidentally ordered a family meal.
So the moral here is: Stick with the basics. More importantly, don't get upset when it seems like nobody tries to understand your pidgin English, agonized gestures, finger pointings and pained expressions.
And there are several avenues for those who desire to learn more. A quick computer search will take you to a variety of language websites that offer instructional packages ranging from wallet-flattening to moderate. I have found some as expensive as $500 for intensive one-on-one training; we recently purchased a set of computer discs designed to teach us Italian for less than $50. I'll keep you posted on how that turns out.
Those who opt to go that route should remember, however, that many foreign countries are well-supplied with English-speaking residents who are more than willing to help strangers. One of my friends recently paid more than $1,500 for a crash course in German for himself and his two sons. When they got to Germany, they used the knowledge only twice because almost everyone they encountered spoke English.