English speaking travellers often assume that the rest of the world also speaks English. While it’s true that English is much more widely spoken as a second language than it was a few decades ago, it’s still rude to approach someone in a non-English speaking country and just assume that they’ll understand you.

It’s worthwhile investing in a phrase-book; while the phrases themselves aren’t necessarily going to be relevent to your situation, the pronunciation guides and tables of weekdays, months, and numbers are invaluable.

Here’s some tips for getting by:

  • At the very least, if you absolutely must approach someone in English, it’s worth asking first if they mind if you speak it and apologise that you don’t speak their language. I’ve seen, for example, Dutch people react badly to German speakers who just assume that they know German (and some of them were even quite fluent in German!) and generally it just came down to being approached in the wrong way. A little bit of politeness can go a long way to starting off on the right foot.
  • Learn how to say good morning, good-evening, please, thank-you and goodbye in the language of the country in which you’re travelling. Even if you can’t speak the language, this will leave people with a good impression of you.
  • If you have to book a ticket on a bus or train somewhere, write down the name of the destination, the time and also the day on which you wish to travel on a piece of paper to hand to the person on the desk. Obviously, you’ll need a phrasebook to learn what the days-of-the-week are in the required language.
  • Practice counting from one to ten in the country’s language; this really helps when you want to buy fruit or vegetables – you can walk up to the counter, point at what you want and say “two, please!”.
  • Attempt as much as you can in the country’s native language … this generally puts people at ease, and if they know English, it will increase the likelihood that they will switch to it to help you out. I’ve used this method to get by in Paris regularly.
  • If you do know a few foreign languages, it can’t hurt to at least try those out, if relevent in the area where you’re travelling, so that you at least demonstrate that you’re not an ignorant, monolingual English speaker 🙂
  • If you’re in a foreign country for an extended period of time, it can really help to watch their local television a bit – especially the ads. I learnt quite a few Dutch phrases just by doing this.
  • You’d be surprised just how similar some languages are. English is a Germanic language, so you’re likely to find that you know or can guess many of the words used in German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic. Similarly, knowing French will help you in Romanian, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. And knowing Russian can help all over eastern Europe, as it is related to Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Croatian/Serbian.

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