Ah, the language barrier. No matter how much you’re looking forward to your trip abroad, you can’t ignore that nagging worry about interacting with people who speak a different language – and potential situations ranging from difficult to ego-crushing. Rest assured, however, that no one expects you to speak in full sentences or be able to conjugate verbs. What you should know, even before you even arrive in another country, is how to be polite. “Hello,” “please” and “thank you” go a long way.
But let’s say you want to pick up more as you go along? I’ve found a technique that’s far more effective than any tape, phrase book or app. It requires no more than an hour or two, and in that short time you’ll know some of the most important words to remember.
Go to the grocery store! Twenty years ago, on my first trip to Paris, I was surprised to see that French supermarkets were pretty much like American ones: The fluorescent lighting, the linoleum floors, even the layout of the aisles made me feel as if I already knew my way around. I walked down the dairy aisle and saw a cow on a carton. “Lait” – milk. There were sticks of “buerre” – butter.
The canned goods were like cylindrical language flash cards with their bold graphics and type. I could easily see that pois were peas and haricot verts were green beans. The meat department is a treasure trove of information because when you go abroad it’s not only important to know what animal you are eating but also what part. In the supermarket you’ll see neatly packaged and clearly labeled cuts of meat that are most likely served in restaurants. Fast forward to the display menu in the restaurant window, and yes! You could go for blanc de poulet (chicken breast) and maybe some légumes de jardin (garden vegetables).
Of course, this idea may present more challenges in, oh, all of Asia. But when I’m traveling in Europe or Latin America, it works like a charm. And best of all, you’ll look like a conscientious shopper paying close attention to prices and ingredients and not what you really are: a rookie learning a language one canned good at a time.
Photo: Samuel Freli/Wikimedia Commons
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