I’ve been thinking about this one for a little while now, and it strikes me that pretty much wherever I go, I make an (admittedly quite small) effort to learn a bit of the language. Now given that almost the whole world speaks a degree of English, I think I could probably get by without doing this, and aside from annoying a few Frenchmen, without too many negatives.
So why do it? Well, I think most travellers do to some degree or other – it’s generally just polite to look liked you’ve made the effort to learn a few words of a host country, and it’s surprising how helpful people often become when they realise you’re stumbling over your two or three good words, and then come cruising along in with their (usually stunningly fluent) English to save the day.
Plus if you know a couple of words, you can sometimes manage to make sense of incomprehensible signs, so you might know where you are, where you’re going and possibly even be able to find the right train. This happened to me not just with a few words of language, but a whole alphabet in Russia.
Well then, what are these fabled 10 words I’ve come up with then? I hear you ask. There are a few of these about on the internet – usually going into far too much detail beyond what I could possibly be bothered learning – which go along with badly spelled variants in every language imaginable. I’m not going to do that – you can learn them yourself!! But on the upside, throughout large chunks of the world (ok, maybe Eurasia) there’s only a handful of variations on these anyway!
So here they are then:
Hello – pretty handy for just about everything; it starts conversations, it’s just generally polite, it makes a surprisingly good impression in a restaurant – especially when your next stream of words is some unthought babble in English (it usually gets a decent smile, because at least you tried)
Beer – This is the biggy. There’s only maybe five or six words for this I’ve come across for beer around the world, so it’s also pretty easy. In some of the slavic countries, in a noisy bar, it can get pretty tough for a bartender to understand ‘beer,’ but ‘pivo’ just rolls off the tongue and ends with a nice cold pint.
Thanks – again, really it’s just general politeness. Almost everything you do while travelling is reliant on someone else – either you’re paying them or they’re just wonderful people, so make the effort to learn to say thankyou in the local.
Please – Another politeness one – seriously, it’s amazing just how far being vaguely polite in the local language, then reverting to a stream of slightly apologetic English will get you.
Piss Off – So this moves away from the politeness a tiny little bit, but it’s still amazingly useful sometimes. It’s not one I use all that often, but India is one place that sticks out where it just became vital – not in a particularly rude way, but it’s just the general ‘no, i don’t want your stuff, no, I’m not giving you money…’ phrase.
Do You Speak English (or often just the word English) – This one goes without saying right? I’m well aware of my shortcomings in that I don’t speak Russian/Tajik/Xhosa, but luckily most of the world speaks a little bit of English – so often just starting off with that one word can get you into half a conversation full of gesturing and arm waving while failing to effectively communicate (it’s all massively fun!!)
Cheers – This one’s maybe less important – I don’t think anyone gets too fussy on how you toast a few rounds of the local ale. That said, it’s another one that helps to start a connection with the locals and can provide for all sorts of entertaining travel tails.
How Much – Pretty vital to start any haggling conversation, or really anytime there isn’t a price right on something in a shop, or on a food cart, or when you’re buying street food. There’s always stories of travellers getting ripped off, and maybe knowing this one won’t stop it, but at least it’ll help you know if you’ve got enough shrapnel in your pocket to buy that bottle of water or whatever it is you need.
And that’s kind of it – I suppose learning yes and no, and a couple of numbers doesn’t hurt either – and the big one – from experience – is that if you go to a country that uses the cyrillic alphabet (say, Russia) then learn how to read the signs. I got pretty lost on my first day in Moscow anyway (old subway map, didn’t have the line I was on on it…) but without being able to read which station I was at, I would have been even more screwed!