Stupid Tip of the Day: Learning Another Language When You Have No Time

Note: Stupid Tip of the Day is a fairly new but no so new regular feature of The Gate which will not be featured regularly — if at all — after today.

Y ou can purchase those language courses and study them intensely — but is it really worth your time to learn as much of a language as possible just so that you may use it for the five days you will be in that country?

Learning a language is more than just learning the words and their order. It also entails sentence structure, pronunciation, intonation, grammar and local dialect, amongst other elements. Language can be intimidating enough just learning it without sounding silly speaking it…

…but trying to cram as much of learning a language as possible in a limited period of time can be an exercise in futility — especially when learning a language you may never use again after your trip.

A course in Baoulé would be great to communicate with residents of Bouaké and Yamoussoukro in the central part of Côte d’Ivoire but may well be useless in other areas of the country such as Abidjan or Korhogo. Languages such as Czech or Hungarian will do you little good outside of the Czech Republic and Hungary respectively. German is useful in Germany, Austria and portions of Switzerland, while French is useful in France, Côte d’Ivoire, and parts of Canada, Belgium, Haiti and Switzerland.

You can certainly spend time learning a language for free at Internet web sites such as Duolingo — but do you really have the time to spend? If you do, by all means learn as much of the language as possible without cramming, as the more you cram, the less you will be able to truly remember.

The problem I have with language in general is that even if I learn it and can speak it, I may not understand it when it is spoken to me — especially when spoken at normal speed. Dialects, accents and the local slang of languages tend to complicate things even more. For example, if you ask for a popular leafy green vegetable in parts of China — choi sam — with the wrong intonation, you could actually be mistakenly saying to someone to get undressed instead.

Even people who speak British English can have a difficult time with some words spoken in American English. For example, a public loo in the United States is known as a rest room.

I can only imagine what someone visiting the United States would be wondering as to why a public washroom with a toilet is called a rest room — but I digress.

Repetition appears to work best for me: the more I hear and use language, the better I know it…

…so here is my stupid tip of the day — especially when you do not have time to learn a language before you enter the country where that language is spoken regularly: when checking into your hotel where an employee is likely to already know English, for example, ask for the translation of one word or phrase. That person will be more than happy to teach you whatever words or phrases you want to learn in that language. For me, that phrase is usually thank you.

When the word or phrase is said to you, repeat it back to that person, who will usually either correct you or tell you that you spoke it perfectly. Do not be afraid to repeat it again to ensure that you have it down as close to perfectly as possible. Write it down phonetically, if need be; and use it to remind you of something in your native language. For me, köszönöm — Hungarian for thank you — sounded somewhat like cursin’ ’em.

You might even want to record how it is said — after requesting permission, of course. This way, you can learn the actual dialect and inflections of how others say that word or phrase, as they are usually spoken informally rather than formally, which is the way many languages are usually taught.

For example, you can greet someone in Romania with bună dimineaţa, which is the formal way to say good morning; but many people in Bucharest simply say buna.

As a result, I can remember how to say thank you in Italian, Korean, Romanian, Thai, French, Chinese, Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese, German — and, of course, English. In fact, it became second-nature and even automatic for me to say thank you in those languages in their respective countries because I used it often enough…

…and when that happens, it is usually a good time to learn another word or phrase, such as a greeting or something polite such as the word please. Use that new word or phrase along with the one which became automatic to you.

Hotel employees are only one instant source of learning a language. You can also learn one word or phrase from others who speak English in the country in which you are visiting: taxi drivers, waitpeople in restaurants, employees behind ticket counters, and tour guides are also examples of people who can quickly teach you a word or phrase in their native language in mere seconds.

By the way, I still to this day remember how to greet a man or a woman in Baoulé as well as Thai because I used those greetings often enough in Côte d’Ivoire and Thailand respectively.

There is nothing like seeing the unexpected delight shown on the face of a person native to that country when they see that you have taken the time and effort to learn their language — even if it is only one word…

…and an added benefit to repeatedly using a particular word or phrase in another language is that the person to whom you are speaking will usually respond in that language back to you. For example, saying thank you repeatedly will automatically teach you how to say you are welcome, as that would be the normal response:

In French: “Merçi!” is “thank you”, to which the response is usually “De rein” meaning that “it’s nothing” or “Avec plaisir!” meaning “with pleasure!”

In Spanish: “Gracias!” is “thank you”, to which the response is usually “De nada” meaning that “it’s nothing.”

This stupid tip of the day is what works for me when learning another language, anyway — and once those words and phrases have been burned into my mind, I cannot forget them.

What works for you when learning another language? Please share it in the Comments section below.

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