LANGUAGE

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: