What Words to Learn First When you can’t Speak the Language (Vámonos Vol. 7)

It’s amazing what can be communicated just through facial expressions and gestures. Often a simple transaction, like a purchase, doesn’t need any words at all. It is more difficult to communicate through gestures if you’re trying to explain to a doctor that you have an allergy to penicillin or need direction on the metro.

Learning a language, or some tiny pieces of a language, isn’t just about protecting yourself from horrible situations. Even on a small-scale learning a language can be fun. On a trip that only lasts a couple days it’s still worth the effort to learn a few sentence fragments, because that knowledge of the language creates a deeper experience of the culture, gives more meaningful interactions with the people, and makes you a little more polite. It’s hard to be polite to someone you can’t speak to.

When preparing for a trip start by memorizing a couple words before you even look at phrases or grammar.

Pre-grammar words:

  • Please
  • Thank You
  •  Hello
  • Excuse me
  • Goodbye

A traveler mastering these basic words may have the vocabulary of a one-year-old, but already they are much closer to normal human interactions. Speech is at the center of communication not words alone. Personality, and mood also get expressed through tone and pace of speech. More than that you can now greet and acknowledge the people around you in their own language.

There will inevitably be words that are more important at different times to different travelers. It would be wise to know not just the address and name of your hotel, but also its neighborhood. When I was in Cachuera, Brazil I needed to learn the name for a place that has internet access in Portuguese (an internetchi as it turns out). When in Guadalajara watching Atlas play Chivas in the classico I needed to know how to say offside’s (Fuera de lugar). At the time I thought my Spanish was almost fluent, but I had never needed that phrase before. With these examples in mind, it makes sense to learn the words that best fit your situation.

Learning a language is hard, but it’s important not to be discouraged when the words come out wrong. Half formed beginnings of conversations are progress toward more full experience. A person getting used to a new vocabulary will make mistakes, sometimes they will say something embarrassing by accident. It’s part of learning and traveling. Usually, it makes for a good story.

 

Trip Tips

Do your homework

Any boning up on a language before you go will pay dividends when you arrive. If you have a plane ride of over two hours there’s no excuse for not learning the basic phrases above while you’re sitting on the plane.

Keep your ego in check

People often comment that they speak another language better when drunk.  This happens not because a bottle of wine is a good French teacher but because without their inhibitions people are more ready to try and speak.  Try not to be embarrassed about your language skills and you won’t need the wine to loosen your tongue

Speak for yourself

People often comment that they speak another language better when drunk. This happens not because a bottle of wine is a good French teacher, but because without their inhibitions people are more ready to try and speak. Try not to be embarrassed about your language skills and you won’t need the wine to loosen your tongue.

Practice

Some people think of themselves as having a great talent for languages, it’s a safe bet that you are not one of those people. Whether you have this gift or not there is only one way to improve language skill and that is to practice.

 

This article is available en Español 

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