A little bit goes a long way

Picture source: Itchy Feet, http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/2017/06/just-jargon.html#.WT05tBPysxc

Behind the humor, there’s an important point in the comic that you’ll find above: you can get a lot of mileage out of a very small amount of knowledge of a language.  You need to be willing to be creative, and you need to be willing to say strange things on occasion, but think about something like this: if you can say something along the lines of “I would like to buy this” or “how much does this cost” and you have a functioning finger that will let you point at things, you no longer need to know the vocabulary for every single thing in the world that you might want to buy in France/China/Romania/wherever: if you can point at it, you can ask someone about it.  If I’m travelling someplace where I don’t expect to spend much time, but still want to learn a bit of the language, I use the Pimsleur courses.  They teach you no grammar, and only a very small vocabulary–but, with some practice at improvising, you can actually make a very small amount of knowledge of a language go a pretty long way.  I don’t have a huge sample here, but along with a friendly smile, this strategy has worked for me in…hm… seven countries that I can think of, off the top of my head.

  • China
  • Czech Republic
  • Holland (didn’t really need it there, as English is widely spoken and I speak it well, but it made people happy to hear an American making the effort)
  • Japan
  • Los Angeles, around Pico and Robinson, where plenty of people speak Farsi and are beyond tickled to hear a blue-eyed guy speaking it, even if he’s old, fat, and bald
  • Sweden (didn’t really need it there, as English is widely spoken and I speak it well, but it made people happy, although I must add that the Swedish course is the only worthless Pimsleur course I’ve ever found)
  • Turkey (Pimsleur actually taught me enough Turkish to have a hilarious interaction with a con woman)

One time in Germany, I used my Pimsleur-strength (which is to say: pretty weak) Turkish to chat with a Turkish cab driver, and when my colleagues and I got where we were going, he got out of the cab and hugged me.  This says nothing about my personal charm whatsoever–I don’t have any.  It does, however, say a lot about how much people who aren’t native speakers of English sometimes appreciate it when an Anglophone goes to the effort of learning even a little bit of their language.

Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have one.  Pimsleur doesn’t pay me anything to plug their stuff–pay to buy it.  Itchy Feet is a great comic, and you should totally subscribe–and no, they don’t pay me, either.

11 thoughts on “A little bit goes a long way”

  1. That Turkish story is quite lovely. I remember when I first arrived in Rome, I lived in room at the top of a reasonable hotel. The attraction was a roof terrace which was shared with one other room. It was occupied by an American dancer. He and I took lunch together and he ordered everything and then announced that he collected pens and would I go with him to this little antique pen shop nearby. I followed. He chatted with he old lady owner. She showed him many pens. He walked out empty handed and I asked if she would be able to find what he was looking for. He replied ‘I don’t know’. I was flummoxed and said he had just been chatting with the lady for nearly 40 minutes surely he must know? His response ‘but I speak no Italian’. We had spent nearly 4 hours together and he had interacted with restaurant and stop staff in the merest sliver of ham Italian. But no-one cared because he was making the effort …. there’s a moral there. A human moral. I loved this piece wholeheartedly and I am off to check out the comic. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m glad that you liked the piece. 🙂

      Indeed, it’s pretty amazing how much good will can come from just a bit of effort put into trying to speak the other guy’s language. As you said: there’s a lesson there…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Osyth,
      I just loved your expression; “in the merest sliver of ham Italian.” Wonderful!
      I loved the moral in your story, too.

      I try and convey to my students of Spanish, who are always worried about their poor oral language skills, that when the converse with a Spaniard who tries to use poor English skills with them, they hardly worry about that, they never would think less of that person in any way, and usually they feel happy that the person is making some sort of effort in a foreign language. ..My point being that the inverse applies. No one cares if you speak badly, or with a foreign accent, when you are foreign.
      It’s only natural!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Marieryan thank you so much for your lovely compliment – it is very well received! I would love you as my language teacher – such a wise approach and one that I will try and keep firmly front of mind when I am having a tongue-tied day in French … it is such good advice – I hope your students appreciate what a good teacher they have 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s also a danger in learning a little bit of a language. Before visiting friends in Japan, I took a short introductory course–roughly enough to ask questions but not enough to understand the answers. The friends we visited told me I’d picked up a decent accent, the down side of which was that people in stores said all sorts of things to me, to which I knew just enough to say, “I’m sorry but I don’t understand.”

    They may have appreciated that I made the effort, and I’m glad I did it, but it drove me nuts all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely one of the challenges is that it’s easier to memorize phrases than it is to understand the responses! I got far enough in Japanese to be able to understand the possible answers to the question “where is the restroom?”…but I still sometimes struggle to understand spoken French, and I have gotten a hell of a lot farther in French than asking where the bathroom is!

      Personally, I would say that the difference between no Japanese at all and just a little bit of Japanese is almost infinitely large with respect to your level of functionality. I never use Japanese outside of Japan, and although I’m sure I’ve been there a dozen times or more, I never stay for more than a week or so, and I always have to review it before I go back. But, I’ve been there one time with absolutely no Japanese whatsoever, and many more times with a little bit of Japanese, and it’s definitely been better with that little bit of Japanese.

      On the other hand: in pretty much any culture, if you have a decent accent, many people will have trouble accepting that you have difficulty understanding, which can be a problem.

      Wow, long response–sorry! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nothing to be sorry about–it was interesting. And reminded me of a guy I met once who seemed to speak decent English and I answered some question for him and could see his face go blank (and then blanker and then blanker than that) as I spoke. When I finally got myself to shut up, he mumbled some sort of apology and we both shrugged and gave up.

        I thought of him a lot on that trip.

        I was fascinated by the structure of Japanese. I’d never been exposed to a language with such a different way of approaching the basic task of getting meaning across.

        Liked by 1 person

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