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Looking over my ‘to-do’ list for a long weekend in Quebec, I realized that I had only three things left to do. First, I had to find some winter boots to fit Son #2. Then, I needed to leave a note for the neighbor who would be feeding our tadpole. And I needed to brush up on how to clearly say, I do not speak French.
Actually, that’s a little bit of a lie. I speak French, un peu, and can understand a fair amount of the language. By most standards, though, my French skills are tres miserable, especially if you consider that I took and passed two years of honors French. In my defense, I only took the class because the hunky discus thrower I had my eyes on was taking it too and I wanted to sit behind him and doodle our names on my notebook with lots of hearts and flowers. <dreamy sigh> Luckily, my hunky crush turned out to be my husband and since he was actually paying attention in class, he can speak a passable amount of French.
~The Beautiful Winter Carnivale in Quebec~
His French skills were no help to me though one day at the Winter Carnavale. Monsieur was off procuring hot chocolate while the boys and I found a table and I began the process of peeling off their winter layers. Almost immediately, a lovely lady tapped me on the shoulder and began speaking in, you guessed it, French. It was clear that I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what it was. I smiled and said," Je ne parle pas Francais. I don’t speak French." She cocked her head to one side and began speaking to me again, but this time louder and even faster.
I kept my smile firmly planted on my face, and said again "Je ne parle pas Francais. Vous parlez Anglais?", I asked hopefully.
Apparently, that pushed her over the edge, because she began speaking faster and louder and gesticulating wildly. At that point, I had two choices. I could gather my tired, hungry children and their 10 pounds of snow gear and bolt for the door, or I could find a way to communicate.
Deep breath. Smile. In miserable French I said, "parlez lent, petit mots (speak slow, small words)." That was all we needed to break the tension and the communication barrier. She then explained slowly that I was sitting at a table reserved for a group of students who would soon arrive and trample me if I did not move. Then she showed me to a better table, helped me carry the snow gear, and even laughed when I apologized for being tres stupid. A potentially unhappy situation ended in a pleasant cross cultural exchange with just a little perseverance from both of us.
So, when traveling in a country where you do not speak the language, what can you do to communicate?
1. Relax. In many countries, you will be able to find enough people who speak English to help you if you really need help. Don’t let you language skills keep you from going to the places you want to see.
2. Don’t be embarrassed. Most likely, you will not be able to hide the fact that you are a foreigner. Embrace your language lacking status with a laugh and a smile and you will find that people will go out of their way to communicate with you.
3. Smile. Just like your momma told you, you can gain a lot of ground with a smile.
4. Learn some key phrases. Teach some simple phrases to your children, as well. Not only will it be a good cultural experience for them, you will also win many smiles from the locals. I remember a particular group of French ladies who were over the moon to hear my three year old say Bonjour with a Texas accent.
5. Be polite. Communication can be extremely frustrating if neither party understands the other, but remember that you are guest in their country and you want to be a welcome guest.
6. Use few words. If someone tells you that they speak English, chances are they understand many words but will be lost in English syntax and the extra articles and adjectives of our language will only muddle the conversation. Once we were traveling in Cozumel and had hired a driver to take us out to a lighthouse on the beach. When we were ready to go, I tried unsuccessfully to explain our needs. Finally, I said simply, “Truck, go,” and he was better able to understand without all the extra words.
7. Use your resources. If you are staying at a tourist friendly hotel, you will be able to find someone who speaks English. If you need help with specific directions or other instructions, ask them to write it out for you in their language. You will be glad you have that handy to give to a taxi driver or store owner who does not speak English.
8. Ask "Do you speak English". One of my favorite stories to tell on my husband is when we were at McDonald's in Paris. In his broken French, he stepped up to the cashier and order an entire meal for five people. It took him what seemed like 10 minutes to get out all the words. He was actually perspiring from the effort when the cashier looked up and asked, "Will there be anything else?" Then, it dawned on him that he could have done the whole thing in English if he had remembered to ask first.
9. Find a tool that works for you. Phrase books in any language can be useful and you can usually pick these up inexpensively at a used book store. Kwikpoint cards allow you to point to a variety of symbols to help with communication. There are also a variety of smartphone apps that allow you to translate languages on the go. Check out this great review of ten of the most popular language apps.
10. Be Creative. Gestures and even drawings are sometimes the best way to get your point across. On our last day in Quebec, we went to a hotel that was hosting a giant downhill toboggan run. At the top, the operator was desperately trying to explain what I needed to do to position myself on the toboggan for the run. There are times when communication fails and you have to take action. He stepped down from his chair, picked me up by the waist, placed me in the correct position and pushed me down the hill. I didn’t get a chance to tell him thank you, but I was glad we found a way to understand each other.