Oi amigo! Sprechen Sie English?

Opinion / Profiles

Johan Smits argues that learning the local lingo is invaluable if you truly wish to interact with local people and enjoy their culture when travelling.

Not that a few friendly words of Vietnamese will instantly disguise you as a local trader and cut the price of your mango in half, but the goodwill barometer will instantly climb several notches. Your vendor might even flash you a priceless, toothless smile. It definitely works for me, whether I’m asking advice about the best vodka in Almaty (Zdravstvuyte) or trying to smooth things out with the traffic police in Kinshasa (Mbote papa!).

If the cliché is that the French expect everyone to speak fluent French, then at the other end of that spectrum must be the Cambodians. One word of badly uttered Khmer to a young waiter will instantly provoke a mile-wide smile and an, “Ooooh, you speak Khmai!”. I have learnt how to respond in Khmer with, “Yes, I’m Cambodian, my name is Ratanak”, which invariably results in a prolonged moment of consternation, followed by a contagious fit of laughter as if I’m Charlie Chaplin reincarnated. It doesn’t matter if my linguistic prowess ends there – the waiter and I are chums now and he won’t forget my meal.

Of course, spending half an hour on the plane learning a few phrases won’t guarantee you a flawless communication experience. And when dealing with the younger generation, they’ll much prefer testing their TV-English on you. Still, on a basic, practical level, your handful of words might be a life saver when you venture into rarely travelled territory where you simply won’t get away without knowing a bit of local speak. Your few phrases will give you access to people who know most and best about the sites you want to visit or the activities you’d love to do. But even in those places where guides and vendors speak multiple languages, venturing out and having the ability to share a silly joke or pick up an anecdote or two from local folk about their lives, is what often makes the trip so memorable.

We live in a world where we expect everyone to speak or understand – at least some – English, and if they don’t we ask Google translate or a travel app to be our interpreter. Gone are the days of hastily leafing with sweaty fingers through a Berlitz pocket-sized phrase book trying to report a lost passport at a police station in Crete, only to find out you’ve just asked for a single room with breakfast. But being able to master the local lingo isn’t really the point here. Saying “Sousadey” on your visit to Angkor Wat doesn’t mean “Hello” but means “Hello. I’m aware I’ve left Thailand and that Cambodia is a different culture. I’m interested.”


One way of saying “no” in Thai, is mai chai which roughly translates as “not yes”

I’m learning the beautiful language of Tolstoy at the moment and have calculated I’ll probably be dead by the time I get to master its obscenely complicated grammar. Yet, learning its Cyrillic script, of which most letters are similar to those in the Roman alphabet, won’t take you longer than an hour on your flight to St. Petersburg. The satisfaction I felt of being able to read signs and street names when I first got off the plane was well worth the effort.

Still, the real advantage of learning a little about the language of your destination is not necessarily the practicality of being able to decipher words. Often, to me it’s more about gaining a better understanding of the character of the country and its people. As pointed out in ‘The Responsible Tourist: how to find, book and get the most from your holiday’, being aware of local languages – and their pitfalls – may lift a few corners of that heavy tourist veil.

If, for example, you know that the Thai language doesn’t have a direct translation of “yes” and “no”, you will more easily accept the confusion – and soothe your nerves – when faced with what at times can be some pretty surreal exchanges in English. One way of saying “no” in Thai, is mai chai which roughly translates as “not yes”. This linguistic reluctance to express an outright “no” might explain why Thai people sometimes try to avoid giving negative answers to foreigners when they feel a positive one is expected, whatever the true answer may be.

The exact opposite happens with Russian speakers. It’s a rich and very precise language where “yes”, “no”, “now” or “never”, mean precisely that. Combine this with the absence of definite and indefinite articles – “Give me key” – and you begin to understand why Russian speakers can sometimes sound a little harsh when they converse in English.

I happen to love language and don’t mind spending quite a few hours of my life cramming words into the sieve that is my brain. It often helps me understand where my foreign interlocutor is coming from. So, take your pick – there are some 7,000 living languages on the planet to choose from. And even if it’s unlikely you’ll ever again be using those painstakingly-acquired phrases in the click language of the ǃXoon in Botswana, they’ll at least provide you with some serious street cred down the pub.

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Johan Smits

Freelance writer, translator, web content developer, author of the novel Phnom Penh Express and Tommy, a short story. Johan has travelled extensively since leaving his native Antwerp. He has lived in Taiwan, West Africa, Central Asia, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Thailand, where he now lives. Loves trying out local brews but tends to avoids noise. Chronically indecisive about where to lay down his hat.

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