People always like it when someone puts a little effort in, especially when they’re a total noob. That’s usually going to be the response you get if you make at least a little effort to speak the language of the country you’re visiting. Even if you’re not proficient in the language, even if you sound like Tarzan or all you can say is “Thank you”, saying what little you do know will get you a long way. That means it’s important to put a little bit of time in learning some language basics before your plane lands.
The loud, obnoxious, (unflattering) stereotypical American Abroad
We Americans have a very particular (and unflattering) reputation which, as a traveler trying to break with the norm and connect with other cultures in a deep and meaningful way, can be really hard to live down sometimes. That scene in the movie A Good Year (2006) (with Russel Crowe and Marion Cotillard – love!) at the restaurant in Provence when the Americans with twangy accents loudly complain that they can’t read the menu and ask for a salad with low-cal ranch dressing and bacon bits. (Spoiler – they are promptly kicked out of the restaurant and directed to McDonald’s because, in France, the customer is not always right (can I hear an AMEN!)).
None of us wants to be that person. I know I don’t, and you wouldn’t be reading a travel blog about personal growth and deep cultural connection if you did.
The stereotype is real, people
That stereotype feels overplayed and comical, but let me tell you. It. Is. Real. I’ve witnessed it happen. And as someone who makes every effort to respect and learn from the culture I’m immersed in, it’s impossibly and incredibly embarrassing.
For example, when I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy, in general I didn’t hang out with my classmates because I preferred to branch out and try to meet locals. But sometimes, in the spirit of comradery, I would accept an invitation out to dinner with them.
Somehow these dinners always exploded into this massive group pushing together tables, and no one spoke a lick of Italian (except me), and they would be loudly gabbing and shouting over eachother and generally making it impossible for any other table in the room to enjoy their dinners. Oftentimes, restaurants would know exactly what was coming when we approached the restaurant, and they would stick us in a back room with not many other tables.
While my classmates argued over whether to get red wine or white, I quietly apologized to the waiter in Italian, ordered water and a carafe each of white and red wine for the table and everyone was happy.
This established me as the pillar of reason, or at least accessibility and communication, to the waiter, who always stood bemusedly by my corner of the table while menus were thrust back to him over everyone’s heads like we were at a Denny’s.
It’s seriously not hard
I was mortified by my dinner companions, but by speaking a bit of the local language and behaving respectfully, I gained respect from and access to the waiter in a way my classmates were unfortunately unable to.
It really doesn’t take much to do this!
A little studying before departure can teach you simple but essential language phrases that will take you far with locals (things like “Excuse me”, “Could I please have…”, “Sorry”, and “Thank you!”). Language basics seem so simple (and dare I say basic?) that tons of people skip this step, but DON’T. Even saying “Could I please have…” in the language and then pointing at the menu item if you can’t pronounce it will distance you so much from the obnoxious stereotype of American travelers. It’s worth the minimal effort, and it will add so much more fun to your trip, not to mention make things easier!
Language basics don’t even have to cost you money!
There are so many FREE resources to help you start learning a language, there’s pretty much no excuse anymore.
- Duolingo – Duolingo is my all time favorite way to review a language. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve never studied the language before. (I tried that with French. It was a bear.) But if you haven’t taken Spanish since high school and you find yourself about to go on a road trip through Spain, this is an awesome free language learning resource to dust off those language basics.
- Other apps – There are so many good language learning apps that I’ve heard great things about that start with a free trial, or the lower levels are free, so this is perfect since we’re just trying to do the language basics. I have yet to try these, but I’ve heard good things about Babbel (first 40 lessons free) and Lingualift (14-day free trial) and am planning to try them both soon.
- YouTube – This one is also obviously available on mobile, so pop in your headphones and watch some YouTube classes at the airport. There are different YouTubers who specialize in different languages, so shop around and find one that jives with you. As a free language learning resource, this really works wonders for some people.
- The Library – And for some people, good old fashioned pocket phrase books is where it’s at. Head over to your local library and find one that doesn’t have too many marks, highlightings, and doodles in the margins, and you’re golden. You’re only out to teach yourself the basic necessary phrases (seriously all you need sometimes to earn the respect of waiters in Europe!), right? This is all you need for a couple weeks abroad!
A quick “Comé va?” will impress that hot Italian guy/girl at the bar
Being able to order your wine in Italian at the bar, is likely to catch the attention of one of the locals within earshot. This is unfortunately because they probably pegged you as an American when you walked in and they expected the stereotype. When you break from expectations, you catch their attention. In this case, in a good way. It’s a great ice breaker!
When they ask you something, and you’re like “Eeehh non parlo italiano attualmente” (tr: Eeehh I don’t actually speak Italian), well at least the conversation got started, right? And that’s the first step to making friends with locals.
Locals like this guy:
Yep. I went there.
Andiamo! (tr: Let’s go!)
Well, what are you waiting for?? Do you have any trips coming up that you could start practicing your basic language skills for? What about a favorite language learning resource, app, or YouTuber? Let me know in the comments! I’m always out for new ideas!