Speaking in tongues

My (ex)Icelandic tutor once told me that she was learning several Japanese phrases for an upcoming trip to Japan, despite knowing nothing of the country. A Travel Companion once, had even bought Turkish and Italian quick-fix language sets in preparation for those holidays.

I’ve no idea if they actually succeeded in getting around more easily, but they’ve never worked for me. Should I bother memorising anything other than “Yes”, “No”, “Thank you” and “Please” in a language I’m completely unfamiliar with?

I’ve often asked myself if I should even bother with the short section found at the back of every travel guide called “Useful phrases” in the language of the country you’re visiting, knowing that I’ll mostly likely sound like a complete idiot when I mangle the pronunciation and say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Forget about even counting to ten, when I can barely remember the basics.

I’ve tried to go beyond the polite niceties, rattling off something and either annoyed someone, or got drawn into an enthusiastic conversation during which I’ll be raising my hands sheepishly and admitting that I know nothing of the language to the crestfallen person.

All too often, I’ve had more success with pantomime and a little dancing around involving frantic gestures. Got hands? Use them. Got legs? Even better. Walk till someone helps you. Have a killer smile? Hopefully someone will take pity on that face. Sometimes, I simply hold up the guidebook to their face, point at the phrase I’m trying to say and hope that at some meta level, they know what I’m trying to get at.

The alternative however, involves learning several languages to a competent level – and for me, that takes years and a heck of a lot of investment – before I feel comfortable conversing with a local or asking for help and not receiving a barrage of information I can’t unravel quickly enough.

In most cases, my interest in the language grew only after visiting the country. And I’ve never quite regretted learning the language since.

The truth is, many locals are charmed and receptive enough when you make an effort to speak what they speak and that’s why I still try these hacks from time to time.

So learn those phrases if you think they will help, but know that they can be as futile as you’ve thought they’d be.

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