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Opinion

Multilingual talk aides experience

February 17, 2012

The language barrier has finally reared its ugly head for the International Traveling Classroom. We’ve spent the last 10 days on the outskirts of Paris, darting in to the inner city on the infamously noxious Paris Metro. While I wasn’t expecting to enjoy our stay in France all that much, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find a ton of friendly people, some locals and other fellow travelers, as well as plenty of fantastic food.

I know I’m not the only one on the trip who was kind of terrified of showing up in a country being completely unable to speak the native language, but I’ve managed to function better than I would have imagined. This is thanks to some advice that I feel is vital to pass on to others who are going to be traveling.

The best thing you can do is get yourself a little phrasebook. I was lucky enough to find one that covered almost all of the languages we’ll need on our trip. Even if you don’t use it all that often, it’s essential to have on your person as a sort of security blanket. You’ll be more confident in dealing with locals just knowing you have something to fall back on, even if you’re not constantly pulling it out of your pocket for reference. Learn the basics before you get to the country. At least have a basic grasp on greetings, asking for things, and thanking people. “Excuse me” is also pretty handy. Don’t forget to learn “do you speak English?” It’s a life-saver.

What some people forget is that knowing the local language isn’t so much about being able to converse in it, it is a simple sign of respect and shows the person you’re talking to that you understand you are out of your element. Starting off a conversation in the native language and then asking if the person speaks any English is a lot better than just blurting out, “do you speak English?” in any tongue. Note: speaking louder and slower doesn’t really help, no matter what the movies have taught you.

Knowing a few key phrases and remembering to use words like “please” and “thank you” will get you through pretty much anything you’ll encounter. I barely speak a lick of French and have only had some minor troubles being understood. You just have to remember to be patient, keep calm and work through things at your own pace.

Language barriers actually made for an incredibly fun night at our hostel. A few of us were hanging out in the dining room having a little bit of wine and another traveler came over and started talking with us. His name was Marcus and he hailed from Germany. His English was actually pretty stellar, so we spent part of the night talking about our hometowns and what we were doing while traveling. Then the French girls showed up.

Marcus got excited for obvious reasons, but he was also eager to try out his meagre French. Myriam and Ariane spoke almost no English, and their German was non-existent. This didn’t stop us from talking until almost three in the morning. It was crazy to be a part of a conversation where everyone was pretty much
speaking their own language. There was a lot of hand symbols, a lot of laughing and a lot of confusion. There were times where it felt like I was at the Tower of Babel.

It was the experience that everyone told me I was going to have in a hostel but I never expected it to actually happen. I would have never guessed that I’d be playing wingman to a German kid while sipping wine in France. It’s easily one of the most fun and most memorable nights I’ve had on this trip. Yes, the museums and the sights are awesome, but, just like Burns’ Night in Edinburgh, it’s the stuff you could never plan that’s going to stick with you for the rest of your life. I’m writing this on our last day in Paris as a group, and all I can think about is how much I’ll miss this place. And the crepes. Those are good too.

Chris Rohling is a journalism major with a passion for storytelling in almost every medium.

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