7 steps to slinging the bat

This week’s guest post is a real treat. Intrepid traveller and founder of adventure travel company Untamed Borders James Willcox provides us with valuable advice on how to communicate with the locals on our travels. His 7 easy to follow tips will guarantee that you will make an impact on arrival. While his language skills are not in doubt, by the time you finish reading the post you might not be so sure about his mathematical prowess.  Sit back and enjoy a linguistic education with a difference.

When travelling, we all know that any holiday is enhanced when you can speak the lingo. Not only does it enable us to earn respect of the people in the places we visit, bargain better prices but it helps make those very personal connections that make many of us want to travel in the first place.

Remember the time when you ordered your first meal, bought your first train ticket or understood your first joke in a foreign language? Simple things suddenly become an exciting challenge and an adventure. So why do we not bone up on some basic language skills before every trip?

I know, good intentions do not always go to plan and just because your copy of “Speak Dagistani in 3 months” is still lying untouched in the cupboard as you are grabbing your passport, money and tickets on the way to the airport doesn’t mean all is lost. Last minute cramming en route is still possible.

So here is my patented 7 steps to “learning a language” on the go.

1. Learn some greetings on the plane

Pretty obvious, I know. You meet a lot of people every day whilst on a trip so learning how to say “hello”, “good bye”, “thanks” and “I’m sorry I don’ta speaka de language” is only polite. The plane is the perfect place to practice. Even on budget airlines the hostesses are taught to be polite and patient so make use of it as you stumble over your “Selamet Tidur”’s and “ni hao”’s and ensure you don’t mistake your “Origato” from your “Nyotaimori”. By the time you get to immigration you should be able to say “hello”, “thanks”, “good bye” and “sorry my passport went through the wash, yes I know I should get a new one but they are damned expensive these days” without the hint of an accent.

Always ensure that the language you learn is the correct one. I once spent 30 hours on a coach from Istanbul to Tabriz in Iran learning Farsi only to find out after a day in the city that they speak Azeri.

2. Learn the numbers in the taxi from the airport

Robert De Niro - Taxi Driver

How can I remember all the numbers? There are literally thousands of them!! True, but of course you only have to remember some. 1-5, 8, 10, 20, 30, 50, 80, 100 I find are the only ones you really need. I find 7 completely useless and discard any numbers that you find hard to pronounce. The cab to the Hotel is the place to get the numbers down pat. Cabbies like to chat and frantically holding 3 fingers in his face sure as hell beats “So… been busy tonight?”

3. Realise that you know so much already

“They’ve got it all wrong with teaching French. They should start off teaching you all the words that are the same as English and then move on to the ones that are different”.

Words of wisdom from an Aussie I met in Istanbul.

But in a way he’s right.

The UK’s culinary deficiency means that you are already half way there with food:

How hard is it to order una Pizza, deux bier, teen samosa, vier frankfurter, payt vodka, ses tacos… you don’t need to learn the number 7… ba chowmien, nau kebob, on baklava, the list goes on.

But beware of some false friends out there. The Turks have never heard of Turkish Delight and you’ll get some blank looks asking for Bombay Mix in Mumbai.

We can find transport through Europe on the autobus, Russia in a machina and Afghanistan in a motor.

What is really incredible is that the fantastique, not to mention chic, French have made it easy for us to be superb critics.

So, by the end of the first night you should be politely ordering food, saying how wonderful it was and only getting a little stiffed by the cabbie on the way home.

"I said 6 drachmas!"

4. Learn Time Phrases as you get on the bus

After a great start with minimal effort it is time to do some serious work as you negotiate the bus and train stations. “Tomorrow” is a word that I find absolutely essential in any language. I defy even Lionel Blair to mime “tomorrow” effectively without the use of any props. “I am coming back” is pretty handy and “Let’s go” usually gets a laugh from fellow passengers. Asking the time from strangers is a great way to practice your pronunciation and listening skills as well as a good way to find out what the time is.

5. Consolidate your skills with focused conversation in confined environments

With a limited vocabulary, discussions regarding the existential problems of the human condition and the effects of deterministic chaos on economic models are probably going to be beyond you. But that doesn’t mean that long train journey or the nights in shepherds’ huts have to be done in silence once you have exhausted your repertoire of counting and saying thank you.

Political views can be quite accurately assessed by listing world leaders and giving a good or a bad after each one; and of course don’t be afraid of sacrificing your actual opinions at the altar of being understood. I recall telling someone in The Netherlands that I didn’t want a kebab because the shop looked dirty. I didn’t know the words for not hungry but didn’t want to let the side down.

Toilet humour is a winner when trying to cross language boundaries.


One "Not small Mac" please

6. Only learn half the adjectives

Adjectives come in pairs. Hot/Cold. Big/Small. Genius/Idiot. Cut your work in half by learning the word “not” and only one of the adjectives.

7. Get some ale into you in the evenings

Nothing gets the tongue moving like some liquor. This is why my Arabic is so bad…. but then so is my Russian so go figure. The jury is still out on whether language skills actually improve after mid to heavy drinking or just appear to improve and until Harvard issue me with a grant for my 7 year long research project on the subject we will never know for sure. However, drinking does increase confidence and lowers inhibitions which are crucial to going that extra step in getting yourself understood. By the third evening of the trip you should be lightly oiled discussing world politics and socio-economic differences between nations whilst ordering drinks and snacks in fluent lingo. On the subject of lowered inhibitions….

8. For the really keen, some late night lessons

If you are really keen on learning a language then you must follow in the footsteps of those great Victorian linguists Sir Richard Burton and Sir Harry Flashman and ..ahem..dive right in. I have been reliably informed that pillow talk with a native speaker of a language is one of the best ways to hone your oral skills.

And that’s it. Soon the trip is over and the words drift from your mind. Within a few weeks you can’t even remember how to say “look here, this spoon is not clean” and within a month even the most basic phrases are lost.

However, years later on the tube, in a bar or in the park you will hear some words, “si, clara”, “Dobre den” or “ni de gou chi le wo de baozi” and you will be transported back to another place, another time and you’ll be heading back home to search for that copy of “Uzbek for Beginners”.

James Willcox is MD of Untamed Borders, a travel company specializing in trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the last 18 years he has started learning 21 languages and considers himself fluent in none of them.

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Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to “7 steps to slinging the bat”

  1. This is an awesome post, and I totally agree with the pointers here. Having both lived and traveled in countries where I don’t know the language, the whole travel experience becomes more fun and enjoyable when one has a functional command of the language. Obviously, what is functional depends on whether one is there for just 10 days or 10 years. It’s a little frustrating at first, but knowing that one will make mistakes and come into embarrassing moments that can just be hidden by smiles is way better than simply not even attempting to learn the language. I find it that an attempt to learn the local language opens doors and paves way for better treatment.

    February 16, 2011 at 1:00 pm
  2. Haha, ‘Learn half the adjectives!’ Truly inspired!

    February 17, 2011 at 12:05 am
  3. The article is really good & I’m enjoying reading it. But the photo of the hand is even better! Andy, is that your hand? I haven’t noticed the last time I’ve seen you. Now I know why you are such a great writer… You can type much faster like that! Unfair! ;-)

    February 17, 2011 at 2:56 pm
  4. Great piece, witty, informative and just the right level, thorougly enjoyed it, now about the existential problems of the human condition?

    February 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm
  5. Thanks for the kind words.
    Learning half the adjectives is something that i genuinely do.
    I need to, on a single 2 week trip in Northern Pakistan alone i can pass through areas and meet friends who speak Pashtu, Hinko, Khowar, Kalash, Shina, Balti, Punjabi and Urdu. Whilst i can’t profess to speak more than a few words in more than two of the above languages i need all the help i can get in trying to ensure i can remember greetings to old friends in the rest.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm
  6. I absolutely love this list. The idea of learning only 1/2 the adjectives is hilarious but so true.

    March 31, 2011 at 7:26 pm
  7. Abi #

    Love “learn half the adjectives…” Also, ditch the plurals, only learn the “polite” way of saying things if there are several different versions and don’t, whatever you do, waste time learning how to say “I don’t know how to speak x language.” It will already be obvious…

    April 11, 2011 at 11:50 am
  8. What a great article!!! Especially about get some ale into the evening….It just makes you more willing to speak- and try out all those words- you lose the fear of sounding ‘funny’. Working with au pairs and their willingness to just keep trying new words and phrases makes you see how important it is to just keep trying! And face it, truth is we all have accents- so just say what you can, be patient, use a smile and if you trust in yourself the language will come….only through use and practice- so just get out there and do it! Great article!

    May 1, 2011 at 11:26 pm
  9. Hey, these tips are really great. I am about to start travelling around the world so they will come in really handy.
    I have always learnt a few words of the people that I deal with at work (Polish, Czech and Hungarian) but travelling will expose me to a whole lot more.
    Thanks for sharing!

    May 28, 2011 at 8:21 am
  10. Abi,

    I disagree that it is a waste of time to learn – “i don’t speak xxxxxx” and “do you speak xxxxxx?”
    It allows you to learn:
    basic sentance structure and word order
    how to change a statement into a question
    how to conjugate verbs for “i” and “you” and possibly the plural “you”
    how to use negatives

    You can use it all the time to build a little bit of confidence and then once you learn the verbs “like”, “want”, “be”, “go” and the question “what” and you sudenly can order food, give opinions, ask for directions, ask about peoples jobs etc…

    Of course you are right that it is not actually useful in telling someone something they don’t know.

    August 26, 2011 at 9:22 am