learning the local language

Bonjour, bitte and grazie.

Don’t expect everyone in Europe to speak English. Learning a little French, Italian and German can save you from some awkward situations


The importance of learning some local language

Imagine finding yourself at an international bus terminus, with fifteen minutes to go. Your bus hasn’t arrived, you speak not one word of the local language and the locals don’t speak any English.

 A Phrasebook such as these available from Amazon are an essential when travelling to a foreign country.

This was the predicament in which we found ourselves while waiting for our coach from Prague to Munich.  Fortunately we were travelling with our daughter, who doesn’t speak Czech either. But luckily the ticket attendant spoke enough German that she was able to understand that our bookings had been ‘bumped’ onto the bus at the next station.

Fifteen minutes to purchase tickets, run down a flight of escalators with all our luggage, grab the next train, find the correct bus stop and go through the passport check with about one minute to spare.

Not a situation I would ever want to find us in again.  If Ally wasn’t fairly fluent in German we would probably still be lost in Prague trying to find someone who spoke English.

This is a good example of why it is important to learn a little of the local language before you travel.

Even if you are staying in the main tourist centres, where English is widely spoken, or with an organised tour, a little local language may save you from travel mishaps like the one above.

It is also just plain good manners to be able to say “Hello”, “please” and “thank you” in the local language.

Not everyone speaks English

Before we travelled to Europe for the first time, Ian was under the misconception that “everyone will speak English” and resisted  my attempts to teach him a little French and German.

Both languages are at basic school-girl level, but with the use of a few online travel tutorials, a decent phrase book and the help of google translate, I found I was able to brush up enough make myself understood, read signs and menus and carry on a very basic social conversation.  In fact I can read in French and German far better than I can converse.

While in London, the pub we were dining at was very busy, and the waiters asked if we minded if another couple shared our table. It turned out that they were taking a weekend break from the south of France.

Like Ian, the husband spoke not one word of English.  Similarly the wife had “schoolgirl English”.  Between us, with much giggling, in broken English and French, we were able to articulate that they were in London for the weekend, they ran a B&B in the south of France, that we lived in the south east of Australia and that we would be visiting our daughter in Berlin, who recommended the fish and chips. A very basic smattering of French turned what could have been a very awkward dinner table silence into a fun evening.

Introduce yourself in the local language

I always tell people “Je parle le francais une peut mais tres mal”, which shows I am at least attempting to speak the local language, but I am up front that I speak it very badly.

I found on numerous occasions during our travels that approach meant people were more obliging and willing to help out with their own limited English . They would often either be embarrassed to demonstrate their own poor English, or offended that I didn’t even attempt to speak French, if I started a conversation with “Do you speak English?” instead of “Parlez-vous l’Anglais?”

We could usually have a mutual laugh about the other’s bad French/English and work through a stilted but amiable conversation to get our meanings across.

In the more rural areas of France, Germany and Switzerland where we travelled, very little English is spoken outside the major tourist sites.  In fact it was occasionally quite challenging in Grindelwald, a German speaking section of Switzerland,  as I was the only one in the family who spoke any German at all, very few people spoke English and I would much rather try to converse in my very limited French.  Thank God for Google translate.

Avoid misunderstandings

At one stage in France I was able to deter my nephew from ordering a whole veal head on a plate, suspecting that the word “tete” on the menu would mean just that.

When trying to find our holiday house in Talloires, my brother in law became frustrated with driving in circles around the narrow streets, parked the van and decided he was getting out to walk and find it.

Ian and my younger nephew decided to go with him. As any caring sister would do, I was singing  “Lost in France” at my sister to ease the mood – until my older nephew pointed out that we had just sent the three people who spoke not one word of French to knock on the door of a house where they potentially spoke not one word of English.  As it turned out, we had parked within view of our chalet, the caretaker was expecting us and they were able to communicate with much gesticulation.

A good phrase book can be an invaluable tool.  It certainly helped me to purchase “nettoyer” to clean our spectacles in Dijon and articulate that I had “la grippe” when I needed flu tablets at a chemist in Ornans.

Out of context

However a lack of understanding of inflections and pronunciations can have at best humorous and at worst offensive connotations for your listener.

For example, if you ask for “connard” in a restaurant, you will be asking for a jerk, not “le canard”, (which is the duck), and if asking for food ‘sans preservatifs” you are actually asking for food “without condoms”

One very good reason why I am always aware of my linguistic limitations and try to stick to the basics.

Learning the local language

Many Tafes and Adult Education centres offer travel language courses, These can not only be great fun preparing for your holiday, they also enrich the whole travel experience. There are also a wide range of language tutorial classes online, but without a tutor correcting your pronunciations, I’m not sure they give as much value.

I am by no means bi-lingual, but a smattering of basic French, German and Italian will go a long way when travelling in Europe. We’re certainly on the lookout for some German classes before our next overseas trip.

Have you had any funny language experiences? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Read Also: G’day Mate – learn a little Aussie Lingo

5 comments on “Bonjour, bitte and grazie.”

  1. Great post. I do agree that it is important to learn at least a few basic words. It is easy to find at least a few words or phrases in almost any language on the internet.☺

  2. I can usually pick up the nuances of different languages and often (although not always) get the context. I also always try to learn at least the basics in any language of the country I’m going to. My luck/unluck is that I have one of those face that people think I speak their language. Either that or I do learn those few words really well and they think I speak it. It has created some funny experiences in the past 🙂

Did you enjoy this post? Would love to hear from you

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.