*This guest post was contributed by Peak Transfer
Most people barely remember enough classroom Spanish, French or German to get by when they travel abroad. And if they do recall some phrases they are often so out of date or formal that they sound wooden and the kind of thing only a foreigner would say. How can you avoid this and attempt to fit in linguistically while abroad?
Before You Travel
The language and culture is so different in every country that it’s often hard to tell beforehand just which phrases will mark you out as a tourist. However, a little research will go a very long way. One place to try could be an online forum with bilingual speakers who will be happy to help. Don’t use an online automatic translator unless you need a good laugh, in which case try translating a short English phrase into five or six different languages in succession and then back into English.
Facebook and other social-networking sites will have communities of ex-pats who live in your destination and can provide advice. The old-fashioned way can also work perfectly well. A good phrase book or guide to the language will tell you which words and phrases are in common use and whether they’re formal or informal. Make sure you get the latest edition of any printed work, of course. Should all else fail, ask a native speaker or eavesdrop! When you arrive, either ask or try to discreetly distinguish the ways in which the language is different to the way you were taught and learn as many common phrases as possible. Coffee shops, bus stops and other places where people are having public conversations are good places to learn how the language really works off the page and in the real world.
Hello and Goodbye
The first things that will mark you out as ‘not from here’ in terms of language are often your greeting and parting phrases. In school we’re taught to say ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’ and ‘good evening’. In reality, though, the equivalent words or phrases in many languages are often, but not always, considered to be more formal than necessary for most interactions. Do remember if you are using a phrase book that ‘formal’ is a matter of respect in some languages. Rather than being stuffy it’s a case of recognising that someone is your elder, social superior or a new acquaintance, in which case the ‘formal’ option is the right choice and to use informal language will make you seem a blundering tourist!
Italian, for instance, has many options for greetings at three levels – formal, informal and neutral. ‘Buongiorno’ is the more formal greeting but many people, especially the younger generation, will simply use ‘ciao’ in conversation, which handily doubles up as ‘goodbye’ too. Many European languages also use a version of ‘hello’, which is handy for English speakers, though you should try to pronounce it properly. Germans, for example, will often say ‘hello’ but you’ll need to remember to also shake hands when meeting a new person and follow their example regarding cheek kisses. Non-European languages are also picking up versions of ‘hello’ as the spread of English influences the younger generation all over the world.
Learn Some Slang
Every language and culture within that language has its own set of slang words and phrases. These are nearly impossible to learn from books since they change so rapidly. It’s all about fitting in and proving you belong to a group, so making a real effort to use slang appropriately will go a long way if you are trying to sound less like a tourist. Be careful not to overdo it, however! Using common slang is good but trying to use obscure slang pertinent only to a tiny minority will make you seem foolish unless you belong to that group.
If you want to truly fit in, though, the gestures and body language that accompany spoken language are vital. Acting like a local person is a better way to fit in than trying to sound like one. Americans, for instance, should be aware that when making the ‘victory’ sign in another country, Britain included, their knuckles should never face the person they’re speaking to. That’s swearing, not celebrating. In Mexico, hands on hips denote hostility rather than impatience. In Chile, raising hands and spreading the fingers are an indication that the speaker thinks someone is stupid. In France and some other countries, the common American sign for ‘OK’ means ‘zero’. Despite the potential for making embarrassing mistakes, just sitting in a coffee shop and watching the people around you is a great way to pick up the gestures common to the area.
One final thing to remember is that no matter how hard you work at it, your accent will never sound like that of a native speaker. However, that’s not a problem because in the vast majority of places the people who live there will appreciate your efforts to use their language and won’t be too concerned about your accent.