How a little language goes a long way

Approx read: 3 mins

A smile and a well-pronounced ‘no, thanks’ in the local lingo is preferable to engaging a smooth-talking local who may not necessarily have your best interests at heart.

The humble tourism phrasebook seems a little passé these days, don’t you think?

In an age where real-time translation earbuds are starting to enter the market and a multitude of apps offer us new ways of learning languages, a dog-eared manual for how to ask to use the bathroom comes across as a little outdated.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

While translation and learning apps are great for a variety of needs when abroad, a simple phrasebook can give you an instant edge when travelling anywhere out of your comfort zone.

Learning a few simple phrases, well enough for them to roll off the tongue when you most need them, is a great first line of defence against a whole host of risks you’ll face when travelling somewhere even slightly hostile.

Sitting ducks

For the average confidence trickster targeting foreigners, a perfect ‘mark’ – or target – is fresh off the plane and completely out of their depth. They wander around the local market pointing and slowly mouthing enquiries in English.

Just a few simple phrases (ideally, with at least a passing attempt at the correct accent) will instantly mark you out as someone a little more confident, streetwise and harder to bamboozle than the average tourist.

I don’t have time to learn a new language

Make no mistake, you’re in no way trying to pass for a local. However, you are attempting to come across as someone familiar with the country, its customs, and perhaps with a support network there or local friends you could call on if need be.

Understandably, this strategy works best with less common languages. The respect you garner by employing a few words of Tetum (the indigenous language of East Timor) is worth significantly more than being able to ask for “Otra cerveza, por favor” while lounging on Playa del Carmen.

Yes, you do. YouTube.

So, what should be your ‘go-to’ phrases for navigating the pitfalls of foreign travel? Firstly, go with the basics and do a little research. Simple pleasantries, numbers, basic nouns you might encounter or need to explain (bathroom, hospital, restaurant etc).

Secondly, simple questions (there’s a reason ‘Where is the…? is a staple part of any beginner’s language learning syllabus) and basic answers to go along with them.

Finally, do not fall into language traps. Not every culture uses the word ‘please’ in everyday interactions (indeed, in many it is reserved for true pleading) so you could sound odd employing it when asking for a bottle of water.

Again, a good phrasebook will have your back, here.

No means No

And, crucially, do not forget that being aloof is not necessarily a negative thing. Plenty of foreigners have been ensnared through a natural tendency towards politeness and a desire not to offend. A smile and a well-pronounced ‘no, thanks’ in the local lingo is preferable to engaging a smooth-talking local who may not necessarily have your best interests at heart.

Employing a few well-chosen local phrases is not about masquerading as a fluent speaker, it is simply about sending a message that you are not out of your depth – and that scammers should focus their intentions elsewhere.

How to communicate when language fails you