I think one of the most fascinating aspects of Europe is the broad range of languages that everyone speaks. In America, it’s common to be taught a secondary language in high school, but the depth in which that language is taught is inconsistent across schools and oftentimes forgotten by the time the student gets to college. In my own experience, I was taught both French and Spanish, but now I am confident I would not be able to hold a conversation in either language.
Each European country speaks its own language (or variant of a language), so if you’re traveling through Europe, there’s a high chance at one time or another, you’re going to find yourself in a country that doesn’t speak a language you’re familiar with. When my boyfriend and I spent a week in Italy, we found ourselves in this exact situation. Despite being told that Italian and Spanish were very similar in high school, neither of us were able to understand what most people around us were saying, much less hold any conversation of substance. Below are some tips we learned that really helped us have good interactions with the locals in Italy.
I feel this is the most important aspect of any interaction, regardless of what language you speak. You’re the stranger coming into other people’s hometowns, and acting like you deserve their hospitality is not going to win you any favors. Make notes of the people around you, and try to reflect on how your behavior compares to theirs. While we were on a train in Germany, a group of drunk Americans boarded and proceeded to sing very loudly for the remainder of the trip. Nobody else on the train found it funny, and their poor behavior just reinforced the stereotype of stupid American tourists.
2. Learn Important Words
It’s not reasonable to ask a person to become fluent in a foreign language in a matter of days, but learning a few key words will make your trip that much easier. A quick Google search yields plenty of lists that give you important words from each language (like this site, for example). While it will be obvious that you are not a fluent speaker, knowing how to order your food or ask for directions is incredibly important. Which brings me to the third tip:
3. Make an Effort
Admittedly, my Italian is quite bad. However, not once did anyone get annoyed with me for making a genuine effort to speak the language. In the bigger cities, a lot of the locals can speak English, but I still found that starting out by trying to speak in Italian, even if the conversation ended out in English, was regarded much better than just assuming whoever I was talking to was able to speak English. As I said before, ultimately, we are the strangers, and its up to us to make the effort to connect.
4. Get a Pocket Dictionary (or App)
If you’re really struggling with getting the hang of the foreign language you’re trying to speak, it doesn’t hurt to buy a pocket dictionary or download a language app. However, I do think that both of these options should only be used in emergency, as casually pulling out your phone during a conversation and reading out words aloud may come off as rude. This is my own opinion of course, so use at your own discretion, and definitely make calls depending on the situation.