English people are not known for arrogance – except when it comes to learning foreign languages. They assume that everyone will speak English – even in the most remote corner of the Kalahari Desert. After all, what were those missionaries doing with their time if they weren’t teaching the world to speak English? And didn’t England once have an Empire? Of course, when Brits do encounter non-English speakers, they resort to the tried and trusted technique of shouting the words slowly, with accompanying hand signals. When all else fails, treat the foreigners like people with learning difficulties and you’ll eventually get what you want.
Thankfully, this attitude is becoming less evident as the world becomes smaller and everyone travels more. Some people have a gift for languages and others don’t, but even if you can only learn a few phrases before you travel, it will be a great benefit. For one thing, a few phrases of the local language will make it less obvious that you are a tourist, and therefore prey for con men and thieves. And you’ll earn brownie points with the locals, even if your pronunciation is dire.
So what are the essential phrases for the traveller? Certainly greetings, such as hello, goodbye, good morning/ afternoon/ evening. In Spain, France and Italy, it’s considered bad manners to just walk into a shop and ask for what you want, and most of Europe is the same. You greet the assistant, and, when the transaction is complete, take your leave.
It’s worth learning the nuances of the greetings as well. For instance, ‘adios’ is ‘goodbye’ in Spanish, but if you’re leaving one of the local shops, you say ‘hasta luego,’ which is ‘until next time.’ When you fill up with fuel en route, it’s ‘adios,’ because you don’t expect to return. It’s a small thing, but it signals to the locals that you have taken the trouble to find out how things work.
Yes, no, please and thank you are also essential phrases. ‘No’ is the same in Spanish as in English, which is very handy if a handsome waiter makes an assault on your virtue – unless you quite like the idea, in which case it’s ‘si’ which is ‘yes.’To add emphasis, such as when the street sellers accost you in the beachside bar to sell their over priced sunglasses and watches that don’t work, shake your head and invest the two letters with as much emphasis as you can muster.
The Spanish are not so fond of using please we are, but they realise it’s part of our culture, and will expect you to use it. In fact, they good naturedly call the English ‘Los Por Favores,’ because we tend to say ‘please’ at every opportunity. Thank you is expected for everything, however, and it’s either ‘gracias’ for a drink or a small service or ‘mucho gracias’ (thank you very much) for an excellent meal, or particularly good service.
If you can order a drink in the local language, not only will you never go thirsty on your travels, you are guaranteed better service in almost any bar and restaurant in the world. It’s worth taking the time to learn how to ask for beer, wine, coffee, water and soft drinks in the language of the country you’re visiting.
In Spain, there are lots of restaurants serving English food, but the real gems are the small tapas bars in the back streets. Don’t be intimidated, go in, order your drinks in Spanish and point to your choice of tapas on the counter. The food will be wonderful, plentiful and very cheap, and you’ll be experiencing a slice of authentic Spanish life.
If you’re in a new location, chances are you’ll need to ask for directions at some point. Make sure you know the words for bus and train station, taxi, police station, tourist office, hospital, medical centre, airport and pharmacy and you’ll be covered for most situations. You also need a basic understanding of numbers and directions, so youcan follow instructions to turn right or left, or to go straight across the first two roundabouts before taking the second exit on the third one. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Learn numbers up to 10 and left, right and straight ahead, and you’ll be able to follow directions. As the Spanish tend to speak quickly, it’s also handy to know ‘I don’t understand’ and ‘Could you repeat that, please?’
Numbers will also come in handy for shopping, as will phrases like ‘do you have a smaller/ larger size’ and ‘do you have anything cheaper/ better quality.’ Armed with these essential phrases, a pocket sized phrase book to jog your memory, and a smile for everyone you meet, you can get by wherever you travel.