The language barrier used to be a big problem for American travelers. I remember leading tour groups through France and was constantly impressed at how Americans expected the French to speak English.
But, in the last generation, English has become the common language of travel. These days in Europe, anyone who’s young, well-educated or working in tourism is very likely to speak English, and many signs and menus are in English as well.
But even when you have to resort to pantomime skills, it’s satisfying — and fun — to bridge the language barrier.
Despite more than 30 summers of travel through Europe, I’m still a monoglot and yet manage to connect with the local people wherever I go.
It’s polite to at least begin your encounters and transactions by trying to speak in the language of the country you’re visiting. Learn and use the words for hello, excuse me, please, thank you and goodbye.
I start conversations by asking “Do you speak English?” in the local language. In France, it’s “Parlez-vous anglais?” In Germany, “Sprechen Zie Englisch?” For help, bring a small dictionary or a phrase book with a menu reader — either in print or on your smartphone — and a good supply of patience.
If the person doesn’t speak English, I do my best in his language. Generally after I butcher a couple of sentences, he’ll say, “Actually I do speak a little English.”
OK, your friend is speaking your language. Do him a favor by speaking slowly and clearly. Enunciate. No slang, no contractions. Keep things caveman-simple. Instead of asking, “Can I take your picture?” point to your camera and ask “Photo?”
Risk looking like a fool: To get airmail stamps, you can flap your arms like wings and say “tweet, tweet.” If you want milk, moo and pull two imaginary udders.
Remember that self-consciousness is the deadliest communication killer. With gestures and thoughtfully simplified words, you’re communicating.
Communication requires an awareness of culture as well as words. For example, the French value politeness. Begin every encounter with “Bonjour (or S’il vous plait), madame (or monsieur),” and end every encounter with “Au revoir, madame (or monsieur).”
The key is to go for it with a mixture of bravado and humility. When you do make an effort to speak French, expect to be politely corrected: c’est normal.
The French are language perfectionists. They take their language (and other languages) seriously. Because of this, they may be timid about speaking English less than fluently, so they might actually know more English than they let on.
In contrast, Italians have an endearing habit of talking to you even if they know you don’t speak their language. You may think Italians are arguing, when in reality they’re agreeing enthusiastically. Don’t stop them to say you don’t understand every word, just go along for the ride.
If you don’t find languages easy, though, remember that wherever you travel, you’re surrounded by expert, native-speaking tutors. Spend bus and train rides letting them teach you.
Listen to each language and imitate. Be melodramatic. Exaggerate the local accent. It can be intimidating at first, but a bold spirit of adventure, a dollop of common sense, and a big smile will take you a long way.
The most important thing is to never allow your lack of foreign language skills to isolate you from the people and cultures you traveled halfway around the world to experience.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
&Copy; 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.