Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Language Barrier to Independent Travelers

Language is often an issue to independent travelers who travel to another country whose people speak other tongues. Unlike those in organized tours, independent travelers need to arrange for accommodation, transport and food on their own. They constantly come into contact with local people throughout their trips. How can they communicate in a foreign land?

Some people are so concerned with this problem that they prefer to join group tours and stick to rigid itineraries set by the tour operators. But experienced independent travelers will tell you that, with a little bit of patience, the barrier can be overcome.

For a start, English is widely spoken nowadays. Vietnamese spoke French during colonial era and learned Russian after Communists’ takeover. Today, English is the second language. In Beijing, taxi drivers learn English as a preparation for 2008 Olympiad. In Thailand, I came across a group of university students who struggled to explain their activity to me, but who cared! The important thing was, souvenir vendors and tuk-tuk drivers understood me.

Of course, we regularly encounter people who never learn English in school, or are too intimidated to speak to foreigners. The travelers, on their part, can learn to speak a few useful phrases in local tongues. Many travel guide books have a language section for this purpose.

Alternatively, we can also learn to speak a language from the people of our destination country. For example, in my recent trip to Northern Thailand, I asked a Chiang Mai resident how to say ‘beautiful’ and ‘bad luck’ in Thai. Both words are pronounced suay, but with different intonations – not easy to learn from book. This Chiang Mai resident, by the way, was an ethnic Chinese, and conversation between us was possible because we both spoke Mandarin.

Hand gesture, though clumsy, is universal. In Chiang Rai, I walked into a restaurant and pointed my finger at the noodle. In a few minutes, I was served a bowl of yummy noodle soup for just 20 baht. Restaurants which serve tourists have menus in English, often complete with illustrations.

When it is time to haggle, an electronic calculator usually does this trick. Souvenir vendors in the night markets of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai show their offered prices in calculators. If you are not happy, enter your desired price. Note that some businesses accept multiple currencies. If a hotel receptionist in Ho Chi Minh City tells you that a room costs 20 per night, don't be over excited. The price is quoted in US dollar.

OK, some of you are ready to learn a foreign language. What should you do? To begin, I suggest that we express gratitude in the language of the listeners, even if they understand English.

(‘Thank you’ is kawp khun karp in Thai, terima kasih in Indonesian, karm ern kuey kark in Vietnamese, xia xia in Mandarin, arigatou gozaimasu in Japanese, kamsah hamnida in Korean, gracias in Spanish, tack in Swedish and dank u in Dutch.)

Oh yeah, male travelers are encouraged to flatter the women by saying, in local tongue, “You are very beautiful.”

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