Summer, sun, time off work… many of us are drawn to a vacation abroad in the next months. For me, Greece is my favourite destination, because it has 6000 islands, zillions of beaches, but also many ancient sights, and unmatched hospitality. I started studying Greek a few years ago and by now I speak it fluently.
Sometimes I “have to” travel to countries whose language I don’t speak yet - the Polyglot Conference in Japan was an example - and then the question is what I should learn in order to make the most out of the trip.
Most publishers of travel phrasebooks appear to think that I should learn how to book a room at a hotel, how to exchange foreign currency, how to explain a car emergency and so on. In my experience, these are not the kind of phrases that will lead to an unforgettable vacation. For one thing, most people book their hotel online, and even if they had to book a room locally, it’s very unlikely that a hotel wouldn’t have any English-speaking staff. Similarly for the currency exchange. It is possible I'll need to see a dentist or have my car towed while abroad, but I will look up the right phrases then, I don’t pre-learn them.
From the typical phrasebook phrases, I will learn only courtesy ones (greetings, thank you, requests…), numbers, and a few phrases for emergencies that don’t leave time to look up words (Stop! Leave me alone! Help me! Thief!…).
Apart from that, my study is focused on words and phrases that help me to connect with people on the street:
- My name is… What is your name?
- Where are you from? I come from…
- Where do you live? I live in…
- Do you like <country>? Yes, I love <country>! It is so beautiful!
- How long are you staying? I am here for … days
- When is your flight? My flight is in … days.
- Have you seen <sight>? No, I have visited …, … and ….
- I have seen <sight>. It is very impressive!
- Tomorrow I am going to … .
- I plan to visit … / You should visit ...
- Do you have any recommendations?
- Where is …? Is it far?
- Is there a good restaurant around here?
- I have (not) eaten … before. What should I try (now)?
- Is this spicy? Can you make it milder?
- Is this meat? Is this fish?
- I would like to try something traditional.
- This is delicious!
- Sorry, I do not speak <language> very well. What is this in English?
Additionally, I learn some phrases that are specific to me, for example to explain my work, to explain that I’m vegetarian, if I had any food allergies I’d learn how to state those in the target language, and so on.
With this baseline, I can talk to local people who don’t know English, and with goodwill on both sides, we can make it work.
For example, I was taking a long-distance train in Japan and the person sitting next to me was an elderly Japanese lady who didn’t speak a word of English. Communicating with her was not without challenges, but I managed to convey that I had come all the way from Germany, that I had seen Nagoya, Osaka and Kyoto, that I had also visited Koyasan, which was very impressive, that the monks at Koyasan prepare really delicious vegetarian food, and she told me that it’s one of three very important places in Shingon Buddhism, and Miyajima (where I was planning to go) is another one of these important places, and so on. The phrase structure we used was very basic and we had to add gestures and the occasional word from Google Translate, but we both wanted to communicate and we made it work.