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  • Bonjour et Merci

    10/9/2020 10:23:20 AM Link 0 comments | Add comment


    I’ve been lucky to travel a lot. Ever since that first trip to France with my French class in high school, I’ve been traveling the world. Over the past 30 years of international travel, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the way we travel. Airport security. The euro. Luggage with spinner wheels.



    One of the aspects of travel that is very different—but at the same time, very much the same—is language. When I first started taking French, I did it because I thought it would be helpful to be conversational in another language if I was ever lucky enough to travel outside of the US. And sure enough, my French has come in handy many times! In fact, I am very proud of the fact that I was able to hold up my end of a French conversation with a very nice Belgian lady on a train. Her first language was Dutch; mine was English; but we found that we could have a conversation in French and make ourselves understood. (Making yourself understood was always the measure of success in my high school French class.)


    No matter what country I traveled to, I found it always helped to have two words in the local language: hello and thank you. These two words, along with some charades, got me around Europe for a semester in college. They got me good service at any restaurant. They got me a kind smile in shops. And they got me where I was going with taxi drivers.



    In my more recent travels, I’ve noticed that most people in even a slightly touristy area speak some English, and they love to try out their English on visitors. (In fact, I think English has become something of a common denominator of languages. I will never forget the day I was in an Italian department store, watching two German women shop for clothes. When the German women needed to find a fitting room, they conversed with the Italian store associate in English.) As I practiced my hellos in the local language, I found that people often responded with “hello” in English! Yes, they could detect my English accent and wanted to practice their English on me.


    Consequently, for modern travel, I have amended my rule of thumb to learn hello and thank you in the local language. My new rule of thumb is to try to say hello well enough that the person I say it to responds in the local language—and does not respond in English. I first practiced this in Todi, Italy. I had noticed that local residents were friendly, both with each other and with visitors. I started listening intently to the accent when they said Buongiorno to one another, and I did my best to copy it. I practiced a few times, initiating buongiornos with people I passed on the street—and usually I got a “hello” in return. Finally, after a couple of days of practicing, I finally did it: someone responded to me with Buongiorno! I was so proud of myself, and I couldn’t help but reflect on my conversation with the Belgian lady on the train all those years before, when she complimented my French.




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