Many would-be travellers are unnecessarily frightened by the prospect of having to use a foreign language. Almost as many take an unrealistic degree of consolation from the thought that 'they all speak English anyway'.
Well, they don't all speak English anyway, except in Britain, much of India (where it is one of the 19 official languages) and parts of the United States. Parts? Well, wait until you've asked the way in the deep south... Mind you, an American might wonder whether everyone in Britain spoke English, if he were talking to a Glaswegian or a Cornishman. And even I can't understand Aberdonians half the time.
On the other hand, we've survived in Hungary -- one of the most fiendish languages in the world, alongside Maltese and Tibetan -- as well as Mexico (where their Spanish is, to put it politely, eccentric), Greece, Russia and more. Often you can find someone who speaks half a dozen words of English, and that may be all you need. Add in the two words of their language that you know, and a couple of words in another language that neither of you actually speaks but can just about understand, and you are well on the way. There is a character in Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' who speaks in a jumble of languages, Latin, French, Italian, Greek and so forth -- and we met him, or someone very like him, in Argos in the Pelopponese. Once you stop trying to speak one language properly, it is surprisingly easy to speak six simultaneously and badly.
Don't worry about grammar, tense, number, all that sort of thing. If you can do it, great, but if you can't, it doesn't matter. Think how easily you can understand someone who speaks really bad English. OK: a Frenchman or German can understand you if you speak really bad French or German. What is more, once you have demonstrated that you are willing to make a fool of yourself in their language, they are usually more willing to make a fool of themselves in yours.
We have found that it is surprisingly possible to communicate with a capsule vocabulary of about ten words, supplemented with goodwill, arm waving and writing down numbers. The latter is important, because (for example, in French) it can be quite easy to mistake 'douze' (pronounced 'dooze', twelve) for 'deux' ('deuh', two), especially if there's a vowel after it, in which case 'deux' becomes 'durze'. Douze heures, deux heures: twelve hours (or twelve o'clock), or two hours (or two o'clock).
That's before you get onto the strange constructions: even after living in France for quite a long time, I find it hard to hear numbers such as 'quatre-vingt-dix-neuf', literally 'four-twenty-ten-nine' or 99. 'Soixante-quinze', 'sixty-fifteen' or 75 ain't much easier.
Although writing things down is invaluable for prices and room numbers, it can also be handy for times. Remember that much of Europe uses the twenty-four-hour clock, so 'vierzehn uhr' (German) or 'quatorze heures' (French -- both mean 'fourteen hours') is two o'clock. To make life still more interesting, the Germans don't say 'half past' but 'half to': thus 'sieben uhr halb' is half past six, not half past seven.
The capsule vocabulary, given for the vast majority of countries we list, is for the following words:
We give both the correct spelling -- so you can always just point to it, if you can't make yourself understood any other way, and if your interlocutor can read -- and a fair phonetic approximation. Listen for those words in the language in question, when others are speaking it, and you'll soon get an even better idea of how they are pronounced.
PHRASE BOOKS AND DICTIONARIES
By all means buy a phase book, but for the most part, we find them less useful than dictionaries -- even tiny, pocket dictionaries. I've always wondered how one goes about chatting up a member of the opposite sex in a foreign language, and I have wondered still more enthusiastically how things get as far as "If you do not stop immediately, I shall scream." At that point, how much use is a phrase book?
The advantage of a phrase book, admittedly, is that it gives a better stab at pronunciation, but years ago a friend called Boris, now long deceased, gave a wonderful insight. God rest his soul (which seems unlikely), he said, "You know how foreigners talk, and what they sound like. Well, talk like that. They won't know you're taking the piss, and you'll sound a lot more like them than if you use a phrase book." At the time, he was living with a Thai bar girl; nothing particularly unusual there, except that he was living in Plymouth in the south-west of England and he'd picked her up in a bar in Switzerland.
The other advantage of a dictionary is that you can look up a wide variety of words. My 'tree of cams' (camshaft) broke once in France. Try finding 'camshaft' in a phrase book. Then there was the time the final drive went in Avignon. As the mechanic said, "You're not going to believe this. The word for final drive is 'pont'. You've got a defective pont in Avignon."
DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES
If you carry only one dictionary or phrase book, the most useful second language in most of Europe is almost certainly German. It is the out-and-out winner in the vast majority of central and eastern Europe, especially to the north and east. For touring in Poland, for example, unless you speak Polish or German or possibly Russian, you will be limited in your choice of hotels and restaurants. And I have found that in Spain, German is often more use than English.
There are many reasons for this. One is the sheer size of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, where German was widely spoken. Another is the result of past military invasions (or in the luckier countries, alliances). And partly it is because of more recent tourist invasions. The Germans are great travellers, and as long as they are not travelling by tank and armoured personnel carrier they tend to be quite welcome. Most sane Europeans would prefer Germans occupying all the sun-beds in Portugal to Germans occupying Poland -- which is one of the reasons I am so pro-European. Both my grandfathers were killed fighting Hitler, and living in France as I now do, I have no doubt that even such disasters as the Common Agricultural Policy and European End of Life Directives (on recycling motor vehicles) pale next to real disasters like World Wars.
Incidentally, if the above sounds anti-German, it's not meant to be. I am, it is true, amazed that Germans are so widely accepted in Europe today. I don't live too far from Oradour, one of many villages that were destroyed, and all the inhabitants massacred, men, women and children, as a reprisal for a Resistance attack on German forces. It's preserved, in the state in which it was wrecked, as a war memorial. If some of the children who were slaughtered had grown up, they would be younger today than Karl: it's all that recent. I can certainly see why some of the older generation hate the Germans, and indeed my grandmother went to her grave hating them. As she said, "They took my Harry" (my grandfather, of course).
But I guess that if I can get on well with Germans -- which I do -- then I shouldn't be surprised that others can too. Indeed, I am very happy that most Europeans born after World War Two seem to make a determined effort to get along together.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
last updated: 30/10/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks