I could never imagine traveling somewhere without communicating with the local people, and so far, it never happened – on the contrary, I am usually busy talking to people all the time. So, does that mean that:
a. I only travel to countries where I speak the language?
b. I speak a LOT of languages?
c. I learn EXTREMELY quickly?
Well, none of them really, I just believe there are many ways of communication and that if you just make a little effort you will manage to interact with most people, regardless the language you speak. Languages fascinate me, and I am usually busy learning a new one (at the moment German, which I will come back to another day…), but I am pretty sure I will never even be close to learning a percent of all the almost 7000 languages spoken in the world.
So, as I got this lovely comment on my site with a somewhat “request” to write another “language-post” I of course got all excited, as it’s a sign that somebody out there actually reads me and likes it, so here you go, this is for you. I know you told me about some trip to Israel, and learning Hebrew… which I have no experience in doing whatsoever, so I thought, hey, let me tell you about travelling in Tibet and trying to get my way around 🙂
To start with, I always think that one should TRY. Trying hard = halfway there, that’s my general rule when it comes to communication. If you want to do it the easy way, I suggest you the following: get a dictionary in the language of the country you are going to travel (or google it…) and learn/write down how to say “do you speak English (/whatever language you speak well enough)”… and say at LEAST THAT when over there 🙂
Seriously, I’ve been working in tourism for YEARS (well, I mean serving tourists in bars/cafés…) and it’s SO awesome when you get a “sxcuci… parlate tu englise?”, “excuse-moi, parleeeeeeeevvvooooooo anglaaaaa?”, “pardon, abla English?” (e.g. something that sounds like Italian/French/Spanish and obviously asks whether I speak English…) instead of “can I have a beer please” or “what’s today’s special?” as in ASSUMING English is spoken by everyone.
I always say, better to give the locals a good little laugh over your mistakes than nothing at all 🙂
So, I promised you to write about Tibet, didn’t I… so let’s continue… from trying hard and using what I could… That is how, I ended up in a workers-neighborhood in Shigatse, Tibet, chatting away a WHOLE afternoon with a group of people and drinking Barley-beer together with an Australian friend. Do I speak Tibetian? NO! Did they speak English? Of course not! So……
Well, I guess we need some structure here… so let’s start from the beginning:
- A little language-guide… I think it is ALWAYS useful to get a dictionary/phrase book when traveling somewhere where a different language is spoken and people in general do not speak English. OK, let’s be fair, if it is not a Latin alphabet to start with, chances are that you will not be pronouncing it correctly, but hey, at least you can SHOW the people what your book says, and thereby be understood (even though, I must say, in some places you might be amazed how many people cannot read or write… ). I usually highlight the words I think will be useful, like for example, in a list of nationalities, I highlight where I come from (the chance of me using “Polish” is not that high, so why bother at the moment… right?). Can also be VERY useful in case of problems (e.g. “I need a doctor” or “I need to get to….”)
- Trying…trying and trying. I remember when I took the train to Tibet from Beijing (a 48h awesome ride, but I will tell that story another time…) I met a bunch of young people who were VERY curious (basically, we were the only non-Asians on the train) and talkative, and had a little knowledge of English. I had them write in my notebook a couple of phrases in Tibetan, and believe me, that became REALLY handy later on during that trip (ok, I admit, I couldn’t make myself really understood, but I showed people what had been written down for me and thereby got around).
- Never underestimate signs and pictures! Seriously… so easy, but easily underestimated. I usually do not eat meat much, and when I travel I tend to eat even less (a personal “rule” for eliminating risks, as I usually eat everything, right off the streets…) and even though the menus are in some Asian language and nobody speaks English, a simple drawing can take you a long way… This is what I used to do when not getting understood in a restaurant 🙂
- When you know something – USE it! You will see it makes you feel better. When I left Tibet my vocabulary had extended to about “Hello/ goodbye” “thank you” “where are the restrooms” “how much does it cost” and “I do not understand”. So I would basically go around on the markets just for fun and go “hello, how much does this cost? Thank you… I do not understand… ok, yes yes… thank you, goodbye” 🙂
- Do not forget your smile! Easier said than done sometimes, remember that a happy face says more than 1,000 words. Be open, smile to people, look at them, communicate without words… Most signs are usually universal, but the most international sign ever, that can never be misinterpreted is a happy smile.
So, knowing the ways I use more or less, now to how our afternoon in this certain Tibetan neighborhood went. Basically, we (my Australian friend and I) arrived in something that looked like a separate village made of something like mud-sheds and we started to walk around. All of a sudden a man sees us and comes up to us. The conversation goes like:
Us: “Hello” (very loud and happy, as we KNEW this word)
Him: ….something we didn’t understand at all….
Us: “I do not understand” with a BIG SMILE 🙂 🙂
Him: ….. a lot of other things we do not understand and frenetically waving for us to follow him (that’s how we understood it at least).
Us: “Thank you” … and we follow him
Him: “Barley beer”?
Us: “Barley beer, yes, thank you” (thumbs up and smile)…
And then we noticed he had taken us to a backyard where what looked like 15 of his friends/neighbors/family members were gathered to chat, play games and drink barley beer. We get served some beer, some kids come up to have a closer look on us, or, rather (mainly) my blond hair… and everyone is talking, without us understanding anything, to us. I got up my notebook, as I had some phrases written down, and showed “I am for Europe” and pointed at my friend and in my book at “Australia”. They repeated what we said, as if tasting the words, and all of a sudden one person seemed to have understood and he lively told the others what we meant. Everybody was doing the smiles and thumbs up, and we got served some more beer… not sure they totally got it, but hey, they probably understood that we were not from there, and not American (they asked us “America”?)…
Basically, our conversation was limited to mostly thumbs up, thumbs down, barley beer, yaks and tea. We tried at some points to draw the map of the world and indicate Australia or Europe, but I am not sure their idea of the world looks exactly like ours.
Anyway, the most hilarious moment was when this one man took my little notebook and looked for something, it seemed like he really wanted to say something to us, but we didn’t understand what he was saying… he tried several times for a while, and could not find it in my book. All of a sudden, he shines up (like as if he got a brilliant idea), points at me, then on my friend… then he forms a circle with his thumb and index finger and puts his other index finger through it, back and forth… ahhhhhhhh, we understood immediately… he wanted to know if we were together 🙂 We quickly explained that no, not at all, we were just friends. What was really hilarious was that about an hour of so later a woman came, and this particular man was showing to us “my woman” as in pointing at the woman, and himself… and we of course could not resist but used the same sign language as he had used, which made everyone (the group of 20) laugh out loud and teasing the man by making the same sign. It really felt like we had something in common and had just made an awesome joke, which is great, considering the only things we could say to each other in WORDS were “hello”, “thank you” and “barley beer” 🙂
That’s it… for today 😉
Oh, and if you really liked reading this, you might enjoy my “Language Reflection part I“-post 😉