Just because you have a doctorate in speaking English loudly while waving your arms about, doesn’t mean you have mastered the art of communication as you travel around the world. Buying a melon with grunts and pointing may be an admirable skill but you’re missing out if you don’t learn at least a bit of the local language wherever you go. With English being the most international language and native English speakers being the most bone idle of linguists as a consequence, I am here to make your life easy with a few handy tips to show that it’s not all hard work.
1. Get motivated you lazy git
“Why bother learning a few words”? I hear you say. Firstly it shows you actually give a toss about the people you are interacting with and this will almost always be appreciated. This means that a simple encounter can lead to greater things, such as getting a better price on the melon you buy or even oral sex in a night club toilet. You never know, so don’t narrow your options by sticking to English. Even if it only gets you a smile and it will often do that, it must surely be worth a bit of effort.
2. No one has to die, usually.
Embarrassed you might say the wrong thing? There are very few cultures who punish poor verb conjugation by poking you with sharp objects or similar unsavory practices and those that do tend to give off bad vibes at an early stage in the encounter so you will know to keep your mouth shut. Just have a go, the worse that can happen is they might laugh and in all likelihood they will be laughing with you not at you – laughter is often used to disguise any kind of social awkwardness. I’ve had whole markets of African women in remote villages chortling at my very presence but I could remain confident that it wasn’t because I looked like a complete dork. At least that is what I tell myself and it definitely helps.
3. You don’t need confidence.
If there is one thing that is better than confidence it is not being unconfident. You need to attain the zen transcendence of not realising you are making a complete twat of yourself. My inspiration in this comes from my father’s excellence in communicating in shops in France, not because he was any good at French (he was fucking atrocious): armed only with a cheery demeanour, a piss poor pronunciation of the word for the object he wished to buy and the expression, “remise artisan”, for trade discount, he would come away with reduced price goods where the locals had said you could never get a discount and where no one haggles over the price anyway. As he clearly demonstrated, it is not skill at the language that is the point of the exercise but the ability to communicate by living in the moment, untroubled by verb tables and complex grammar.
4. Talk shit
You don’t learn by getting things right, at least not in the first place, you learn by getting things wrong and then realising you have cocked it up, or by having someone correct you, or the person you are trying to communicate with reacts in such a way that leads you to believe you may have made a mistake: such as when the sex worker you have engaged pulls out a pair of pliers. It is far better to say the wrong thing out loud than think the right thing and say nothing, at least if you can run away quickly or are heavily armed.
5. Mental post it notes
Whether you are just learning the basics or seriously studying a language, a good memorizing tool is to have a little word association reminder of words you are having trouble remembering. For example the Egyptian Arabic for, “she sold”, sounds remarkably like, “my bitch” and “government” in Russian is a bit like, “Private Store”, a porn shop from my youth in my home town and thus indelibly fused into my memory. Actions can also be used, such as combining “right” and “left” with suitable hand gestures as you say the words. This works equally well with all kinds of verbs such as, “hold”, “shake” and “wipe”, for example, just use your imagination. Don’t worry how irrelevant your reminder seems to be, it will almost certainly help you remember things. Incidentally it’s worth checking out Memrise online, it works on a similar basis and has loads of courses for most languages, often with sound files – if you download the app you can learn words and test yourself whenever you have a few spare minutes.
6. Good things come in pairs
Once you have gone to the trouble of learning a word, such as “big” for example, it doesn’t take many extra brain cells to remember the opposite, “small”, at the same time or another word you always associate it with. So, when you learn the word for “sheep”, why not learn, “pleasure” or “kebab” at the same time and you are bound to remember both.
7. Ignore the crap bits of the lessons
With only two weeks in a country you can be forgiven for not gaining a working knowledge of pluperfect subjunctive clauses, so ignore all those stupid lessons about the, “this is John, he is an engineer and lives in a big house”, kind of stuff and go straight to the useful bits, like, “do you mind if I put my hands there”, or “if you touch me again I will rip your balls off and shove them down your throat”.
8. Repetition repetition repetition
Unless you have a photographic memory (in which case, why have you bothering reading this far) you need to imprint words and phrases onto your brain so that you don’t have to think about them or go through a translation process in your head before saying them. Having followed the previous steps and got over your embarrassment and fear of making mistakes, all you have to do now is take every opportunity to use what you have learnt, regardless of whether anyone needs to hear it or not. Just because all you have learnt is, “these are lovely melons”, is no reason not to repeat it incessantly to all and sundry. Hence, when you do eventually encounter some fine melons you will not even have to think for a millisecond before complimenting their owner, who will undoubtedly be so moved by your mastery of the language that they will only be too happy for you to lay your hands on the melons at no cost whatsoever.
9. Kill your friends
The problem with having friends who travel with you is that they will insist on speaking English, as they won’t share your new-found desire to totally immerse yourself in the culture of your chosen destination. You need to live, breathe, eat and shit the language to advance your understanding rapidly so don’t want any distractions. Just make sure you burn the remains somewhere remote so things don’t catch up with you. If you having a twinge of anxiety about making such a move you could always adopt my approach of going to boring, unpleasant and unpopular places so no one will come with you. If you just happen to be an inherently unlikable person then you’re in luck.
10. Make life difficult
As you need as much practice as possible interacting with johnny foreigner it’s no good having guide books, maps and translation apps, or in fact any modern accessories. Get public transport to somewhere inconvenient and pointless, get hopelessly lost, pretend you don’t speak English and just try to get by on your selection of melon based phrases and a friendly smile. It will do wonders for your language skills.
Please note: the author does not take responsibility for any harm, legal action or death resulting from pursuance of the above guidelines.