Children - India

Talking to the Locals

Language, in all its mesmeric forms, it is perhaps the biggest barrier one has to overcome while travelling. It certainly strikes fear in the hearts of the weak and insecure. We’ve all been there, things are said, hands go berserk, more things are said, and you have no clue what’s going on. To local people, the faces of travellers must look like one big collage of pitifulness and ignorance. Some people, however, are able to transcend the linguistic divide with relative ease.

So where lies the key? And how much should you learn in the first place?


After spending three weeks in Turkey, the country had impressed me with its mix of era-defining architecture and rambunctious and helpful locals. I knew how to say thank you and the usual niceties, but precious little else. Many people spoke English, which was always a relief. Some even spoke Japanese, German and Korean, but I didn’t speak any of those. As with any major city such as Istanbul, multiculturalism was clearly present, and this has led to an increased use of English as well as Turkish in those places.

One day, I opened my guidebook and spent half an hour learning the Turkish numerical system – how to count to twenty, and then the accompanying units. Not only are the Turkish people a chatty lot, they also like to sell carpets, and in many cases one usually follows the other. The point is that bargaining in the local tongue can be very useful, as I was about to find out.

I stepped out onto the largely empty street near Aksaray metro station in Istanbul after taking a short flight from Diyarbakır in Eastern Turkey. I knew the tram was not running, so I would have to take a taxi back to the hostel. It was now time to test the little amount of Turkish I had learned.

‘Taxi!’ shouted the driver nearby. ‘Sultanahmet… ne kadar?’ Sultanahmet… how much? I asked. ‘Sultanahmet? Yirmibeş lira,’ he barked. I laughed; he was asking for twenty-five lira for the short journey. ‘Yirmibeş lira? Hiyır.’ Twenty-five lira? No, I said.

‘OK, yirmi lira?’ he replied. ‘Yirmi? Hiyır, teşekkur ederim.’ Twenty? No, thank you, I insisted.

As the charade continued, a short, straight-faced driver intercepted the debacle and while offering to pick up my bag, came in with ‘OK, on lira.’ OK, ten lira. It was more of a statement than a question, and in doing so he was acknowledging that by showing a little ability with the local language, I was obviously no fool who would just accept a twenty-five lira cab fare. These are the times that making the effort with language can really work out in your favour.

Learning numericals makes good sense, since as tourists we’re the ones buying things on a daily basis. Even looking up multi-use phrases like ‘Is this…?’ or ‘Where is…?’ can be useful for countries like Slovakia, Hungary and much of Central and Eastern Europe, as the geniuses in charge of their transport sector seem content not to bother making signs for the train platforms, leaving you rather clueless as to when you should get off the carriage. And if you do alight in a paranoid hurry, your guess is as good as any other as to which town you’re now in.


It’s unfortunate in a way that when you do speak a few words in a foreign tongue (especially if you’ve rather deviously mastered the accent), the person you’re speaking to may get prematurely excited and begin enticing you into a political debate on civil reform or start talking about their fears for the coming monsoon season in great detail. In this case I’ve learned a lesson from the great writer, traveller and BBC personality Michael Palin. Mr. Palin turns up in Peru with barely a word learned in Spanish, but he displays a wonderfully unapologetic approach which seems to negate the need to speak it, and still manages to win people over. First he smiles, then asks for things in English, points a bit, listens to the reply, and upon not understanding a word of that reply he just continues to talk in English while smiling more, dicking about and remaining super-cool throughout. Sooner or later, whether you’ve learned two dozen phrases or two phrases, you’re going to have to do this. It’s fun. Just don’t expect an intelligible answer.

Staying cool, while enjoying the interaction, maintaining a degree of dignity and not expecting sympathy because you’re foreign is the best approach when communication breaks down, which it will… everyday… with pretty much everyone.

It’s okay that we speak different languages, it doesn’t mean that we can’t understand one another. Bridging the gap is about showing respect, making an effort and using a little charisma in the mix.

During the one month I spent in China, the first two weeks were a struggle. I knew no Mandarin, couldn’t decipher the Chinese characters, even for the simplest things like ‘rice’ or ‘noodles,’ and although it was an unforgettable experience, I found the second two weeks to be infinitely easier simply because I made small strides with the language. It turns out that Mandarin is an absolutely beautiful language, and China, well, China is both an ancient and modern wonder of our world and deserves a long trip with much to discover; an ideal place to learn how to bridge gaps.

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Language has a supreme ability to separate those who place absolute importance upon it. And while I advocate learning basic phrases, exercising other communicative tools like body language and mild facial expression, as well as an ability to see the light in sometimes frustrating circumstances will stand you in good stead for a glorious conversation with the world.