Native English speakers are lazy, ignorant and downright rude – or so we can appear when encountered abroad in non-English speaking countries. However when we were preparing for our trip from London to Australia we were determined to put some time and effort into learning the languages of the countries we were visiting. Those efforts were rewarded tenfold even when we were only able to exchange a few words.
We chose to concentrate on Russian and Mandarin as we were spending a month in Russia and three months in China. We also prepared to learn some Vietnamese and Indonesian (two other places where we intended spending several weeks) along the way and downloaded courses in preparation.
At the end of our trip we had the following observations to make:
- If you can, choose a language with the same alphabet. If you can’t divert the Trans Siberian train through, say, France then just get on with it and try and learn some Russian. At the very least learn the Cyrillic alphabet which will be invaluable reading the departure board otherwise you might just end up back in London.
- Even if you are only passing through a country for a day or two, as a matter of courtesy learn a few simply phrases like “hello”, goodbye”, “yes”, “no”, “please” and “thank you”. It really does help communication on a very basic level and you will feel much less of an idiot if you have even only a couple of words. We didn’t learn any Polish, Lithuanian or Mongolian and felt frustrated by our inability to even greet people with a simple “hello”.
- Invest in a phrase book if you are spending any length of time somewhere (or download some of the many free apps that are available). Try to find one which helps with pronunciation but also provides the word as it will appear on the menu. It was a big mistake not to take a Mandarin phrasebook as few of the menus are in English, or even pinyin and we had to rely on picture menus resulting in ordering either banquets for a family of 8 or meat of dubious origin.
- An audio course such as Pimsleur is invaluable for pronunciation to help you get a “feel” for a language and become comfortable speaking it. It’s no good being able to read a newspaper if you can’t ask sometime simple directions or order a coffee.
- On the other hand, classroom learning is good for grammar, structure and vocabulary, and recognising the written word but classes can be expensive. Try to remember you are not studying for an exam, you are trying to learn how to communicate in another language. If you do have the time and money to attend a class do so – every method has its benefits but we recommend attending a class in conjunction with an audio course.
- Finally, our aim when learning another language is to try to communicate with the people who live in the country we are visiting. But remember there are countless ways to communicate and speaking is only one of them. Hand gestures, facial expressions, and context all contribute to understanding and making yourself understood. You may only understand 10% of the words being spoken but understand 100% of the message, and that is the objective.