Phrase books: Friend or Foe?

July 14, 2011 by admin

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I wouldn’t necessarily class myself as a seasoned traveller, but I do like to see different parts of the world when the opportunities present themselves and, hopefully, when I reach the end of my days on this earth I will have seen a lot more of it.

Being able to speak a foreign language well is a blessing, and I am eternally grateful that I can converse in French at a near native level. This fluency, however, is more of a hindrance when I travel abroad to a country where I can’t speak the language. I feel embarrassed, inept and altogether frustrated and impotent faced with the daunting task of expressing myself in a language I haven’t mastered. This was brought home to me on a trip to Bologna, Italy last year. At the airport I purchased a phrase book because the thought of not being able to order a bottle of wine horrified the linguistic pants off me. Whilst it proved somewhat useful in reading menus and asking for a table or a coffee, the little book of handy phrases did lead me to question the true usefulness of such publications.

Flicking through the phrase book you have such practical phrases as (and I kid you not):

‘Where can I buy a memory stick?’ – should you have the burning desire to buy one for your many holiday snaps- or ‘Where are the children?’- should you accidentally lose your offspring at the beach.

This is all well and good, but what do you do when the friendly Italian responds to your ham fistedly pronounced question (no thanks to the convenient pronunciation guides), if they do, in fact, grasp what you’re trying to say? You may stare blankly, then start rapidly thumbing through the pages until you find the Italian for ‘Could you repeat that please?’ And so the process is repeated, once again you are none the wiser to where your sprogs have vanished to; you start feeling rather foolish and so grin, nod your head and mumble ‘grazie mille’. Meanwhile your partner is looking at you expectantly for a comprehensive translation. Ashamedly you must admit you didn’t understand a word of the reply and so you must comb the beach for your children yourselves.

As a Brit I am fully aware of the reputation we have as a nation to go abroad and refuse to attempt to speak the local lingo. There’s nothing that makes me cringe more than hearing a loud British, or, for that matter American, voice asking for the nearest Irish pub for their breakfast fry-up. Come on, you could at least try (and don’t even get me started on the sausages!).

So in this respect (and I may be playing devil’s advocate here) I suppose phrase books are worth the paper they’re printed on. Whilst you may not understand the delightful replies aimed in the direction of your untuned ears, at least you have made an effort and are a few paces ahead of the ignoramus enunciating loudly and miming that they would like ‘two pints of lager (and a packet of crisps) please!’

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