Travel is an opportunity to experience something new.
Travelling with kids expands that to allow you to introduce them to sights and sounds that blow their world wide open. What better way to help them understand the amazing variety and beauty of the world than to have them take a small part in expressing it?
The language barrier can be intimidating to a lot of travellers, but it is actually a wonderful opportunity. By learning a few key phrases with your children, you can enjoy the beauty of another language together and show respect for the local people by addressing them on their terms.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that most languages take years to learn and a lifetime to master. You are not going to be fluent through a few hours study of a phrasebook on the flight to your destination. On one trip to French Polynesia, I had prepared myself for bartering in the local market by learning two vital sentences in French: ‘How much is this?’ and ‘That is too much!’ Armed with my astounding vocabulary, I approached the first stall and selected a fresh warm loaf of bread for lunch. I asked the smiling local girl at the stand what it was going to cost, and she told me – in French. I stood there, a bit dumbfounded for a moment, because I had, of course, neglected to learn how to count in French. After much embarrassed fumbling I bought the bread and slunk away. To this day I don’t know how much I paid.
Instead of trying to conquer complex conversations, concentrate on a few basic phrases that will enhance the experience for your whole family. Simple greetings like hello and goodbye are usually fairly easy and a great start. ‘Thank you’ would be another essential, and you would be surprised at how well received a genuine “thanks” is when you make the effort to do it in the local dialect. From young people and children particularly this will earn goodwill and break down barriers with the locals. Don’t be surprised if your kids pick it up faster than you do, or if the locals want to teach them more. It’s a great cross-cultural experience to learn a language from a native speaker, and a great memory in years to come.
When you have chosen some phrases to learn, make sure you check for variants that may not be immediately apparent. For instance, in the Philippines you add ‘po’ to a phrase, to indicate respect when the person you are speaking to is older than yourself. In some languages there are differences in expressions depending on the gender of the speaker – for example, in Thailand a woman says ‘ka’ and a man says ‘kup’ after their sentences. Many Asian languages are tonal, and so saying the right words depends on how you say them, not just the arrangement of the letters. Possibly one of the best things to do would be to ask a local to teach you the right thing to say.
Speaking English is enough to get by in most of the western world, and it is also lingua franca for much of the tourist track elsewhere. You could get by speaking simple English in Bangkok, Bali, Belgium or Brunei without too much of a problem – thousands do. However, there is something to be said for learning a few basic phrases in the local tongue and it is an opportunity for you to help your children expand their world view, and show a little respect while you do.