“How much does this cost?”
“What is your name?”
“I am a toilet…”
True story. I did spend the first few days (of a 2-week trip) in France confidently “asking” je suis une toilette? , whereupon I was – every time, mind you – politely directed to the nearest bathroom. Only after my (French-speaking) daughter finally happened to overhear me did she inform me that I had been telling people that I was…a toilet…and that what I really wanted was: Ou sont les toilettes?
Here’s my point: foreigners (even the French – contrary to popular legend) are extremely tolerant as long as you’re trying. One needs no better proof that learning the local language even if it’s only the basics is crucial than the fact that they will even happily direct you to the restroom after you’ve just proudly outed yourself as a porcelain deity. I also once said “thank you” in Chinese – to a Korean waiter. He was very (very) quick to (politely) correct me; but in the process – I learned how to say it in Korean.
Americans, especially, do have a tendency to think that everybody should speak English, so I have always taken it as a personal duty to do my part to dispel that perception. Now, when I say (in my title) “learn” the language I don’t mean become fluent (albeit a noble goal). I really don’t even mean become proficient. In fact, I get by on very little: Please. Thank you. Have a good day. Where is the [insert a few, key, memorized nouns here: train station; museum; hospital; pub]? How do you say [followed by me pointing at stuff like a 2-year-old]? The (or, at least my) end result is often a combination of tactics, often “looking” something like this:
“I would like [holds up 4 fingers because I don’t know how to say ‘four’]…[points…because, how did I know I was going to want tangerines in Pisa?]…please.” Sure, I look like Harpo Marx – but I get my fruit, and (usually) learn how to say it next time (“Vorrei quattro mandarini, per favore”).
I also try to learn on the fly, too, by listening to common phrases used by locals. Again with France as an example, I quickly picked up “bonne journée” – “have a good day” – when we went out shopping. It’s often these little verbal gestures that make the biggest positive impact, demonstrating again that lack of fluency is not a drawback. In fact, if you travel extensively, becoming fluent – or even conversational – in multiple languages just isn’t practical.
One overlooked benefit of giving local languages a shot is that it breaks down personal barriers to an extent that locals often become comfortable about their often equally-marginal proficiency with English. In Nice, we found a great wine bar that we returned to regularly during our stay, and the proprietor began asking us if he could practice his English with us – which turned out to be way better than our French!
In preparation for a foreign trip, keep it simple: try to think of the basic things you say when you’re out and about at home. If you’re not routinely needing to ask “What is the average flying speed of the Galapagos sparrow?” at your local mall or gas station or grocery store – it’s unlikely you’re going to need to ask it abroad (granted, unless you’re in the Galapagos). This approach typically will lead you to learn the following:
“Where is/are the _____?”
“What is your name?” and “My name is…”
“This is my [wife/husband/brother/sister/son/daughter], [name]”
“Take me to [address].”
“How much is _____?”
“What time is it?”
“Please/Thank you/You’re welcome”
“What time do you open/close?”
Taking a similar approach (your own daily life) I try to learn a variety of practical nouns: store, gas station, library, post office, hotel, museum, apples, bananas, bread, cheese, etc. Don’t forget important emergency nouns like hospital, police station, etc.
With this rather small array of linguistic tools, you’ll be surprised how versatile you can be when you combine them: “How much is the cheese?” “What time does the post office open?” “Where is the hospital?”
My last learning the local language experience was probably the most interesting. In preparation for our trip to Scotland last summer I immersed myself pretty intensively in Scottish Gaelic You Tube videos. I knew at the time that only a small percentage of Scots (about 10%) spoke Gaelic but in reality I didn’t run into a single soul who did – the 10% is apparently limited to very rural areas and more to the north. However, many of the signs will still display Gaelic, and this became very helpful when driving and shopping. I even had an interesting conversation (in English!) with a Glasgow bartender because I recognized a Gaelic label on a bottle of scotch.
The bottom line in learning the local language: you don’t need to know a lot to get a lot of satisfaction, engagement, and – frankly – respect. Trying matters. Even if you’re a toilet.