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.
- 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)
- 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–I pay to buy it. Itchy Feet is a great comic, and you should totally subscribe–and no, they don’t pay me, either.