Tim Foolery

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Language and Travel – Parlez vous la langue locale?

I love language. English is my native tongue. I studied Spanish for three years in high school, German for two years in College and I’ve been taking French as an adult for a couple years now. I love the nuances of each languages, but I truly dig the similarities between different languages.

My Spanish, German and French are good enough to order in restaurants, ask for directions, get tickets to things and of course, ask if someone speaks English.  My mind struggles with formulating a response to a question…even if I completely understand the question. I just need more time to put the words together in my mind…but the question poser usually switches to English and I’m done with my language experimentation for that conversation.

When I travel someplace new, someplace where I have no knowledge of the language, I will pull together a few words or phrases that I can use to show I’m not a total dolt.  Things like Please, Thank You, Hello, How Are You?, I’m Fine, Do you Speak (English / Spanish / German / French)?, Where is…. These all at least shown that you’ve tried to learn about the culture you are visiting.

Last year, we flew on EVA to Taipei from Chicago (en route to Myanmar). I knew the stews would speak English, but I wanted to learn a critical phrase in Mandarin. Critical for me.  No, not “Where is the bathroom”, but more important “I would like some champagne please.”  I googled this phrase and practiced the day of our departure.  Once we boarded and had settled, I turned to the stew and said, in my best Mandarin “Hello, how are you? I would like some champagne please.” She was shocked and giggled while covering her mouth. She responded in Mandarin, which I didn’t understand. She returned with the Purser and a glass of wine. The Purser said she couldn’t open a bottle of champagne because of Cook County taxing rules, but I could have a glass of sparkling wine.  Good enough for me.

Unfortunately Hello Kitty could not help me in my champagne search. I tried though

Fast forward two month, I’m at an annual meeting for my company, which is being hosted at a Marriott near O’Hare. The bar was packed and service was slow and confused.  I was standing around several senior leaders from my company (several C-level and a couple EVPs). I noticed our server had a Chinese flag on her lapel, so when she came over, I used my limited language skills and ordered a champagne.  She flashed me the biggest smile and took off, not taking anyone else’s order. She returned a few minutes later with a bowl of bar snacks and a flute of champagne. One of the executives I was standing with turned and asked with a smirk – “What just happened? Did you just order a cocktail in Chinese?” We are not a multinational organization, so using Mandarin isn’t part of our daily lives. Luckily this woman didn’t ask me any follow up questions.

At the end of the day, this is just an amusing anecdote we tell around the office and the only real benefit was that I got my drink quicker than others.  That being said, I think you earn a lot of street cred when you at least try to pick up some of the local tongue. Who knows, you may be able to show your resourcefulness at a hotel bar and impress your executive leadership team.  Also remember, if you know just two phrases, don’t act like the cock of the walk – you memorized a couple of sounds, you’re not a polyglot, but you could end up just being a jerk.

Do you try to learn a few key words and phrases before you hit the road?

1 Comment

  1. Brad says:

    That’s an awesome story. I’m also a native English speaker, with barely passable (read pre-schooler level) Spanish, a few phrases of German, and minimal French. Like you, do try to pick up a few phrases of the local language before travel. People usually appreciate the effort, even though the process lasts all of about one sentence.

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