My husband Jon assumes that everyone who works in a city where numerous tourists flow through speak English, and he seems to think we will have no problem getting around Thailand. I then recounted my grand tour of Beijing, by cab, in the great hunt for my hotel because I didn’t have the written Chinese version address and was pronouncing it completely wrong (and I speak Chinese). Or when we were in a restaurant in Budapest, where written Hungarian looks like Lord of the Rings language, and were handed a menu in German, to help us out. We found that a game of charades and imitating different animals worked better.
In reality, English is the third most spoken language, at 322 million speakers – next to Spanish (332 million) and Mandarin Chinese (885 million). And even if those people do speak English, there’s the chance you won’t be able to understand them anyway. Even in English speaking countries, like India, or even England, where I have to say “what?” because they pronounced something funny or used some phrase like “that’s four quid” or “fancy a pint?”
My boss, who spent a vacation in Japan, gave me a similar suggestion for our 12-hour layover through Tokyo. Go to the tourist office and ask them to write the following on a piece of paper, in Japanese: Airport – Train – Hotel – Various tourist sites. Hand that piece of paper to a taxi driver, and said taxi driver will whisk you to your destination, unlike my Beijing incident. This advice is applicable to all countries.
I also find you win a few extra customer service points if you try to speak to your service representative in his or her language. Words like Hello, How Much? Thank you, Goodbye, Bathroom? and Where Is… seem to be enough to get me around the country. I like to visit the BBC Language page to pick up a few phrases prior to a trip and sometimes just for fun. The site features 36 languages for phrases, and seven languages for actually trying to learn a language. I tried out the Spanish one and learned to order food. I was all excited to try it out in Barcelona, except they speak Catalan there and actually didn’t really understand Spanish. On the Spanish page, you can also play these language games. My favorite is “Costa Amor” which is a cartoon soap opera. It is better than mooing for your dinner, at the very least.