Friday, February 25, 2011

Vacation Language Skills

We plan our vacations to visit places we are interested in. As a photographer I know that there are some places I visit that the photos I get aren’t going to be post card quality. As tourists we get what we get. It really isn’t a bad thing. It is part of my trip. I use that thought to extend into all parts of my vacation. I don’t let small disappointments set the tone for my vacation.

I went off on a tangent yesterday about someone letting the fact that they went on a tour and were angry because there wasn’t an English tour and they felt that they missed out. I know for a fact that this place that he was complaining about had a gift shop and it was possible to get small pamphlets in English or even books about this particular castle. This person had options and if he wanted to learn more about that castle he could have gotten a book from the gift shop. Or he could have just enjoyed the sights and sounds of the tour. I mean really he may never see that castle again and yet didn’t want to enjoy what he was seeing. My thing is that we’ve planned a trip in advance and yet we don’t take the time to learn a couple of words. Don’t make the assumption that people can or will understand you. I mean we expect people here in America to speak to us in English don’t we? Why then do we presume that everyone will be able to communicate in English? It is the Ugly American Syndrome all over again. If you are going to be traveling in a foreign country for a couple of weeks and probably won’t return there soon again then you don’t need to be fluent but then again learning a couple words or simple phrases can be very helpful. I won’t say that they’ll always be helpful but more often than not people will sympathize with you and help. I’ve learned that the phrase “How you say that?” is very useful. Also the phrase “Where is the bathroom?” is another handy thing to know.

When you get home from your vacation you’ll be surprised at the eclectic group of words that you remember from your trip. I remember getting a pebble in my shoe and my friend looked at me while I took off my shoe and he said “Kieselstein? Ow!” Two words and I understood them both. I never forgot Kieselstein either. I don’t get much opportunity to use it but I remember it. I also encountered my first people mover at the airport in Frankfurt and it was called Rollbahn and it took me years to get to be able to say people mover instead of Rollbahn. I didn’t know the English word for it but then again I don’t think people mover is right either.

Here’s the deal about having a conversation in a foreign country particularly if you don’t know the language. You are a stranger approaching a stranger and that is usually pretty uncomfortable for the both of you. When you add in the fact that neither of you can speak the same language you’ve now put more pressure on that stranger. Maybe they do really want to help you but can’t because they don’t understand you and they get frustrated and you were already frustrated to begin with so there is a lot of stress in those situations. I’m sure smart phones can help or maybe even a phrase book. I tend to carry a pocket dictionary with me when I walk around.

I’ve had many conversations with a lot of pointing and picture showing and most of the time I was successful in getting my point across and even better managed to find what I was looking for. If you are in a bakery for example you just have to point at something you want and show how many fingers for the quantity. Just remember that Germans us their thumb for one and their index finger to mean two. You don’t have to understand the total amount just look at the cash register for the amount. Another tip is pay with hard currency as often as you can because if you don’t you’ll find that you have a lot of extra weight in your pocket. Americans usually carry their money in their pocket and Germans carry it in a pouch.

Many fast food establishments have made it easy for all tourists by having pictures close at hand so all you have to do is point to what you want. If you like McD’s then you can order a Gross Mac mit Kase und Pommes for a Big Mac with cheese and fries. If you put ketchup on your fries then everyone will know you are an American. Germans usually eat fries with Mayo and sometimes mustard.

I’ve learned that you need to become more aware of your surroundings. You’ll find lots of familiar things around you as you walk down the street. The power of observation will help you with learning new words in many cases. If you go into a café or the dining room of your hotel you’ll see all the food and coffee with cups and silverware laid out. You don’t need to know the names of that stuff to ask for it. Myself I take this opportunity to try new things. I mean it won’t hurt if I don’t eat my same breakfast every day. Although I won’t give up my morning coffee. Germans have really good coffee.

You planned this trip to have fun so have fun. Smile at people, say hi to everyone in the dining area. I’ve learned this little trick. If it is in the morning then greet everyone by saying Morgen and a smile. This is an ice breaker and people will respond to it. You won’t be perceived as standoffish and this goes a long way in the end.

So my advice about language skills is this. If you immerse yourself in a culture then you’ll learn quickly. If you resist then you won’t learn anything at all except maybe to be very frustrated. Language skills take a long time to learn properly. That doesn’t mean that we can’t understand. It just means that it may take a little longer to get our point across and understand the answer given to us. It is part of the fabric of your trip and the memories you make while you are there. Slow down and enjoy where you are. Stop and smell the roses as it were.

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