Many travellers think of foreign languages as a stumbling block to their travels as they can’t make themselves be understood easily, but what I’ve found in my travels is that the local language is often very closely tied to the culture of the place so you can’t truly experience a place without knowing some of their words. One thing that can make a place seem so familiar or foreign is the language of a place – seeing signs written in shapes that you can’t comprehend is one sure sign you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore!
Not everyone can be a polyglot, nor can everyone speak a universal language, but it got me thinking about what languages I know and how that might have helped my travels so far.
As a Singaporean, English is my first language as it’s the language most of my generation were educated in and do business in, and while most people are surprised that I speak English so well for an Asian (where most countries have their own mother tongue), it’s just always been the language I’ve known, spoken at home and in my life. English seems to be the default travel language for most countries, probably because it’s the main business language and that a large proportion of travellers hail from the USA or English-speaking European countries – you’ll get by quite easily at most major tourist attractions if you speak English.
Chinese or Mandarin is my mother tongue, and I have taken it as a first and second language at various points in my education. While I’ve grown to appreciate it more as I got older, it’s not an easy language at all to pick up and I wouldn’t have gotten by school without the aid of a tutor for many, many years. Being able to read Chinese characters does prove helpful in the East Asian countries like Japan and Korea, whose languages have some Chinese influence, and with the proliferation of Chinese tourists, many of these countries too have folk who can speak Chinese as well. In Seoul, I ran into a lot of Chinese-speaking sales girls at the cosmetics shops!
I did one semester of French at university, which proved useful in very basic sign reading and getting directions (‘Ou est …” is about the bulk of my sentence forming) when I was in France in 2007. I can read it and pronounce words fairly accurately (can’t roll an r for shit though), but I cannot follow french conversation as the words just don’t sound like they look!
I’ve also picked up some loose Japanese from many years of manga reading and anime watching and tried to teach it to myself. At one point was able to read Katakana quite well (the writing which is phonetic based, though I had no idea what the words actually meant), and I still know the basic greetings and expressions.
I also speak and understand a little bit of the Hokkien dialect (a Chinese dialect from the Fujian province in China) from being brought up by my Hokkien-speaking grandmother, but so far I’ve only used it in Singapore when conversing with some of the older folk.
A general tip about navigating foreign languages when visiting a new place is to do a little homework and look up some of the basic words, as well as location words before you embark on your trip. The Seoul trip in particular was quite eventful because I studied a little of the Korean writing system, which is a phonetic one where each shape/stroke represented a sound, and it did help in locating street names and places which were not translated into English!
Also, I have also realized that that some things are universal, and can be communicated regardless of what you speak – a smile and a nod or a short bow goes a long way, and you can do a lot with facial expressions and hand actions. Remember that speaking louder and being irritable rarely helps anyone understand you better, be patient and you’ll be surprised!
P/S: I’m looking to pick up a new language this year, stay tuned for more on that!
What languages do you speak? How has that helped your travels?