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October 14, 2006

Travel Tongues

Donald Pittenger writes

Dear Blowhards --

They say it's a good idea when traveling where other languages are spoken to be able to say things such as "good morning" or "thank you" in the local tongue. The theory is that it flatters the natives because you made the effort to learn at least a tiny bit of their language.

Maybe so, maybe not. Not being bilingual, I don't know how I would react were I a shopkeeper or hotel clerk and someone helloed me and then immediately switched to Ukrainian.

On our tour to Russia and the Baltic area last year, the tour director passed out phrase-sheets every time we crossed a linguistic border. Then he'd coach us with the pronunciation. On this year's tour of central Europe, the director went through the phrases but omitted the cheat sheets.

I paid no heed to any of it.

This is because I'm not a "quick study" when it comes to languages. I take care to pack pocket phrase books for use in emergencies.

So am I one of those boorish American tourists?

Yes and no.

I don't go soft and slobbery over other cultures, that's for sure. If there's a folk dinner and entertainment offered as a tour supplement, I'll take pains to avoid it.

But I do a few things in an effort to make travel smoother.

For instance, if I already know something about a language I'll try to use it as much as I can. I used German quite a bit on my recent trip. I can buy stuff in stores and restaurants using French and order meals in Italian. I've even ordered items at McDonalds using Dutch, Russian and Czech -- the latter cases because I could pronounce the names of items on the menu boards.

Which leads to the strategy I use outside the Germanic and Romance linguistic orbits.

I try to learn how written words are pronounced.

Not the same as knowing "hello," mind you. But it helps me recognize cognate words or to guess the meaning of other words next to the ones I already know. And by knowing a few nouns I sometimes can get by simply uttering the word for water or subway.

I don't know any Russian to speak of, but know the alphabet. This allowed me to wander the streets of Moscow reading street signs and furtively correlating the names with those on a street map I brought along in a back pocket of my jeans.

Were I to stay in a country for more than the two or three days tour groups give you, I probably would begin to learn the helloes and other common phrases. And if my stay was for longer then a month, I'd probably make a serious effort to learn the language, difficult though that is for me.

What do you do when you pay a short visit to a country where you know zilch of their language?



posted by Donald at October 14, 2006


I always feel like an idiot in foreign countries.

There's a lot to be said for travel. Mainly, that it shakes up your own internal kaleidascope (sp?).

But to try to strike up a conversation with the natives? In their own language? Fuhgedaboutit!

Posted by: ricpic on October 14, 2006 7:57 PM

Recently at a presentation about the Blackfeet, one of the audience members -- trying to be graceful -- asked how to say "thank you" in Blackfeet. The problem was that Blackfeet never SAID thank you! And they never said "goodbye" either. It's not a matter of not knowing the word. The whole concept was missing. Strange how we always assume there's an equivalent to the categories we value.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 14, 2006 9:04 PM

If you're a girl, it makes no difference -- assuming you're even remotely young (like, under 40-45), local guys will be all too happy to assist you in solving whatever problem you have. Guys, though, are on their own. BTW, if you speak the local language, girls really take notice of that, especially if their expectation of you is abysmally low, as is true for Americans. In general, it's good when girls think things like, "Hey, that guy's not your average ___."

If you're only in the area briefly, it probably pays to know the basics in the foreign language, but not enough to carry on a broken conversation about the weather or whatever. I think they'd be more impressed if you knew a lot about some famous composer or historical event of theirs (or current pop music star, etc. for low-brow talk), and discuss that in English.

And for some things you don't need to talk at all, like if you go out dancing. Hip-shaking, smiling, pupil dilation -- they say the same thing in any language!

Posted by: Agnostic on October 14, 2006 11:13 PM

I've been to Europe a few times, but never anywhere really exotic. What I've found in western Europe is that--

1. In urban areas with lots of tourists going through, the locals you're likely to run into in places like stores, hotels, and restaurants generally speak English or can find somebody really quick who does. In Holland and the Scandinavian countries, they'll speak English better than you do.

2. Try to speak the native language to store clerks or other service personnel, and they'll often recognize your accent and answer in English.

3. Sure, you can take the phrasebook along, and maybe you can ask the friendly gendarme "Where is the loo?" in his own language, but the phrasebook isn't going to be any help for understanding his answer if he doesn't reply in English.

4. If you're just passing through as a tourist, it's hardly worth the bother to learn to speak the local language, since most of the people you'll deal with have some English. But what is worth it is learning to _read_ the language, since it vastly increases your ability to get around the country on your own. Signs on storefronts identifying the nature of the businesses within, menus, instructions on how to use the pay phone... If there's a sign posted with a skull and crossbones on it, say, it might be useful to be able to read the explanatory text and find out just what the LEBENSGEFAHR!! up ahead actually is. It's also useful knowing when a sign isn't important to you (I tend to think that AUSFAHRT FREIHALTEN -- don't block the driveway -- is the most common sign in Germany, and that the signs about cleaning up after your dog are the most ignored in places like Paris). While waiting for a commuter train at a station in Copenhagen, I found it useful to know that a train with GENNEMK├śRENDE TOG ("through-running train") on the signboard wasn't going to stop.

I tell myself that one of these days, I should go to some place like Hungary where the signs aren't at all recognizable, and see how I do there...

I have to admit that I've occasionally sampled the cuisine of the local Mickey Dee's, too. Often the counter help are school kids working part-time and they're taking English in school, so they know some. But once, in Holland, I was in line at a McDonald's and the American in front of me was trying to order a strawberry milkshake. If the counter girl knew any English at all, she didn't know the word "strawberry," so there was some mutual incomprehension going on. The American wasn't helping matters by getting mad and raising his voice, either. Figuring the sooner his problem was solved, the sooner mine (of getting my good) would be, I stepped in and pointed out to the girl that he wanted the milkshake labelled AARDBEER on the order board. It was one of the few times I've seen a Dutch person not be proficient in English -- but not everybody goes to college or even finishes school, not everybody necessarily does well in language classes even if they are required, so you can't count on every random person you run into knowing English well enough for mutually intelligible communication.

Then there was the young waiter I saw at a Belgian restaurant a couple of years ago, shifting effortlessly among four different languages as he waited my table and others near me. In an American school, he would be a linguistic prodigy, but in Europe he was just waiting tables and his seemingly brilliant command of four different languages was secondary to his real job.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 15, 2006 12:31 AM

Actually, go beyond the 5 or 10 "thank you" and "hello" standards, and try to pick up 50-100 words whenever you travel. That's easy enough to do on the airplane trip over, especially if you practice a bit while you're there. Maybe in Europe it doesn't matter, but the difference in how you're treated is palpable if you break out South Sotho, Swati or Bahasa Malaya.

(That said, some have an ear for language and some don't. If you're not going to be able to pronounce the words somewhere near properly, your gain will be smaller. With, say, Cantonese, I'd be stunned if your average non-native speaker could even make himself understood, let alone pronounce the words properly.)

One more thing to know: Learn the Asian finger numbering system. Their "8" and our "8" are not the same, and if you don't speak Mandarin, for instance, the shopkeeper is going to hold up the Asian finger signal for 8 while you stand around looking perplexed.

Posted by: kevincure on October 15, 2006 2:01 AM

As someone who has lived in a number of different lingustic areas and travelled to many more:

Important phrases to learn:

'Sorry, I don't speak Russian (Portuguese, Hungarian, Italian, whatever), do you speak English?'

For example, the first of those would be, phonetically (just about):

'Izvenyitsi, nye ma govarit Russkie, pah Angliski?'

That might actually be the most useful of all phrases actually.

After that, well, it depends. If you're like me, wine (Hungarian, bor), beer (Hungarian, sor, should have an umlaut, pronounced schur), yes (H, igen,) no (H nem) and cheers (Hungarian again, eggushegudre) seems to do it and the last time I was there a decade ago or so I remember I also managed to learn 'one', 'two', 'thanks very much I'll have a (bor/sor)' and ' what are you having?'.

Perhaps that tells you more about the way I travel than anything else though.

Posted by: Tim Worstall on October 15, 2006 6:23 AM

Actually, if you're a female who's remotely young at all, and traveling alone, knowing the language can be quite helpful. Local guys may be willing to "help you" solve a problem you're having, but they can also cause many problems for you as well & make themselves quite a nuisance, especially if they have preconceived notions of American women & their morals (or lack thereof). Understanding a bit of the local language can go quite a ways in making you feel safer & less vulnerable in situations that might otherwise be more intimidating.

Posted by: RT on October 15, 2006 8:03 AM

Interesting. I feel very uncomfortable in places where I can't speak any of the language.

My Russian is shocking considering I am married to a Russian. I've heard my wife speaking to our son for three years now, so I know lots of nouns and can basically point at things and grunt, but I can't put together anything resembling a coherent adult sentence. Nevertheless, on our last trip I managed a couple of days out unescorted in Moscow while my wife was at work, and I got by ok.

India is a whole 'nother game. I spent six months in South India. Imagine travelling in the States if every state spoke a different language. The main South Indian languages - Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam - are closely related (think Italian, Spanish, Portugese) but use different scripts. I had a Tamil friend in Kannada-speaking Mysore, who said he could just about follow conversations in the street, but couldn't read his electricity bill.

Everywhere I travelled in India I found people who spoke enough English to get by with things like hotel rooms and food, but rarely enough to have a decent conversation. And as Donald says, learning enough of the alphabet to be able to make out street signs, bus destinations and the like really, really helps - at least with easing some of the feeling of helplessness.

Incidentally, for what it's worth and contrary to what Americans think their own reputation aborad is - the long term expat Americans I know here in Germany generally make more effort and speak better German than the Brits and Irish. I guess because coming over here is a bigger deal for them so they're willing to make more effort - it really is hard work learning a foreign language as an adult, as I have discovered to my consternation in the last seven years. My German is good but it will never be anything like fully fluent. I read somewhere that true bilinguality is possible only if you start before about age five.

Posted by: Alan Little on October 15, 2006 8:15 AM

It does tell me something, Tim: what you think is a Russian "can't speak English" disclaimer, sounds more like a broken Polish.
Don't try that in Novosibirsk or Baku- it'll be as incomprehensible as Welsh.

Posted by: Tat on October 15, 2006 8:16 AM

"Everywhere I travelled in India I found people who spoke enough English to get by with things like hotel rooms and food, but rarely enough to have a decent conversation."

Sounds like the Indians working on Microsoft's and Dell's tech support lines :)

Posted by: Peter on October 15, 2006 2:05 PM

Kevin is right: Cantonese, like other tonal east Asian languages, is a whole other game. Most tourists in Hong Kong/China who try to learn even a few words just end up as sources of amusement for their hosts. Part of the problem is the tones, part is the differences in basic sounds/pronunciations, but a big part is that it's very hard to write down Chinese using the English alphabet. For example, a simple 'thank you' (one of two forms in Cantonese) is usually anglicized as 'm goi'. But you may see it as mh goi, mgoi, mmgoy, etc., etc., depending on whose semi-official or purely idiosyncratic system of romanization's being employed. And the ways in which neophytes end up pronouncing it -- well, let's just not go there . . . .

Another fun quirk in Chinese: no words for 'yes' and 'no'. That'll keep the tourists guessing!

Posted by: mr tall on October 15, 2006 9:46 PM

I try to get by in foreign lands with a big smile plastered on my face, hopefully indicating a general bonhomie, while also furrowing my brow, to show I'm concerned about something.
My lingua franca is a mutt-mix of French-Canadian, English, Latin, and Croatian. I sound like a character out of Clockwork Orange. People tned to stare at me in confusion but I usually get served what I thought I'd want to eat and I've never missed a train or ferry connection.

If I lie and say that I'm a Canadian, things always go much smoother. Luckliy, I've nver been asked for my papers after I declare myself a Canuck.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 16, 2006 11:34 AM

I've never stayed in a foreign (to me) country for more than 3 weeks, so I've only ever learned the most utilitarian phrases ("Where is..." "How much is...") etc. Although in Spain, with all my high school Spanish and from just living in California, I was able to have basic conversations in Spanish, which the locals seemed to appreciate while also being amused at.

I don't think a tourist has any obligation to know the language of the country he/she is visiting, but said tourist doesn't have the right to get upset when no one can understand them, either. Being gracious and polite, while also monolingual, is fine.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 16, 2006 11:44 AM

I think the best advice in the thread is to learn something about the area that is important to locals. Especially coming from Americans, most people are very flattered if you can name and say something intellegent about a local sports star (every person in a small country can name its olympic medalists), actress, political figure or product.

The other good bit of advice is to start and end any bit of communication with the locals with a big smile. Most don't expect languange skills, but they also don't appreciate being seen as responsible for communication. Act as though you're grateful that they can speak english or are willing to decipher your sign language and you'll almost always come off as a good person.

I've lived in China for the past 5 years now and while people here appreciate that I took the time to learn to speak decent Chinese, what they most appreciate is a friendly person. A big fat smile and a greeting in any language goes much further than a pained attempt to speak in their language when you can't understand the answer.

Posted by: Karl on October 17, 2006 5:46 AM

You really only need to know these two phrases: "May I have a beer, please?" and "Where's the bathroom?"

Posted by: Chuck Jones on October 19, 2006 1:37 PM

Forget the language I have some advice for North American tourists in Europe: Don't walk around with a goofy smile on your face. Smiling at people on the street, people you don't know, is abnormal. The locals will think you are either retarded or a pervert.

Posted by: AndrewM on October 20, 2006 1:09 PM

Wow, ordering stuff at McDonalds in Russia must have been tough. I can just imagine you struggling with 'bigmak', 'royal', 'mkchiken'

Posted by: jb on October 24, 2006 7:24 AM

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