Although there’s no question it’s very intimidating, I think it’s important to learn a few words and key phrases of the local language when you’re travelling. Although English is widely spoken and gestures will get you most of the way even where it’s not, people love to see travellers making an effort to connect, and they’ll be all the more likely to help you out if you do.
I’ll never forget the dining carriage attendant on a Mongolian train who really drove idea this home for me. An unfriendly-looking man in his 40s, he seemed to be in a fairly bad mood as he served the pommie backpackers ahead of us. When our turn came, we pointed to items on the picture menu, and handed over the last of our Tughrik. He handed us our change, we responded “Baichla,” – Mongolian for thank you, the single word we had mastered over the last three days – and suddenly the man’s whole demeanour changed. A huge smile appeared on his face as he exclaimed, “Baichla! Yes! Very good! Baichla!” We ginned back, surprised and happy at the sudden transformation. A few minutes later, sitting at a table and gazing out the window at the edges of the Gobi desert, I suddenly felt an arm on my shoulders. I started, turned, and found myself looking into the grinning face of the carriage attendant, who had taken a seat next to me. “Baichla!” he said again, smiling. “You very good! Baichla!” He was clearly just so pleased that, for once, someone had attempted to speak Mongolian rather than simply demanding he speak English (or maybe Russian or Chinese).
You don’t have to be a linguistic mastermind to make an effort – goodness knows I’m not! Mongolian is a difficult language for an English speaker with its throaty, guttural sounds, and Baichla was the only word I managed to get my mouth around while we were there. But making an effort makes a difference. So I thought I’d offer my tips for picking up a couple of words during a short stay.
- Choose some key words. You’re not going to learn much in a few days, so just start with the essentials. I think the best words to start with (in order) are: thank you, hello, excuse me/sorry, please, and toilet (because ‘where is the toilet’ is something you really don’t want to mime!).
- Ask someone how to say them. Phrase books will only get you so far, because the authors write phonetic sounds in their own accent, which might be different to yours. Also, other languages have plenty of sounds that simply don’t exist in English. It took days before anyone understood me when I said “pahjzalsta” – Russian for “please” – because I just had no idea what sound “jz” was!
- Don’t worry about the grammar. There’s no exam, and we all know that while “excuse me, could you please tell me where the nearest toilet is?” is much more polite, “sorry, where toilet?” will still get you there.
- Find out if there are any important quirks to the language. In Japanese, questions are asked by adding “ka” to the end of a statement. In Thai, you can make everything more polite by adding “kuh” (female) or “krup” (male) to the end of every sentence. Knowing these details helps you be more understood.
- Use pop culture. I don’t speak French, but when I visited Montreal, my favourite song of the moment happened to be Art Vs Science’s Parlez Vous Francais. Swap out Francais for Anglais, and you’ve got a useful sentence.
It doesn’t seem like much, but couple of words here and there really does make a difference. It’s not super easy, but it will make the locals smile, give you something to talk about and share, help you be more polite, and help you get further in your travels.
Have you had an experience when knowing a word or two really helped? I’d love to know what happened – hit comment below! 🙂