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Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Jim Eagles: Talking at cross purposes

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What's the most useful phrase to learn when visiting a foreign country? According to a survey by Lonely Planet, covering 4300 independent travellers from 119 countries, it is "Where's the toilet?"

Locating the nearest convenience was also top priority for the 133 New Zealanders in the survey though, with Kiwis being a smooth-talking bunch, "Your country is very beautiful" was not far behind.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, "Two beers please" was regarded as the third most important phrase to learn.

The survey also found that going to a country where English is spoken is of very little significance to most New Zealand travellers. Only 15 per cent said it mattered at all.

A few said they had learned a language fluently prior to a trip and most said they had learned a few phrases.

The fact that we speak English is a huge advantage when travelling because an amazing number of foreigners speak at least a few words of the language and it is by far the most common second language on signs.

I recently visited Japan - often regarded as a particularly difficult country to travel in - and had no particular difficulty navigating my way through Tokyo's streets or underground railway system.

A lot of the signs were in English as well as Japanese and, when they weren't, I discovered that most Japanese people have a reasonable knowledge of English, even though they are a bit shy about speaking it.

I had learned a few phrases of Japanese in preparation for my trip though I, too, was a little shy of using them.

But when I did pluck up the courage to say "Good morning", "Thank you very much" or "This is delicious" the locals were absolutely delighted.

I didn't actually need to ask where the toilets were because they were all clearly marked, either in English or with the universal signs for men and women.

I suspect the reason for the general reluctance to use foreign words is a fear of making fools of ourselves.

The Lonely Planet survey found that about half the Kiwi respondents were aware of having made a faux pas trying to speak a foreign language and the other half said "Not that I know of."

I'm in the second category. I've certainly made mistakes when trying to use my selected foreign phrases. But I can't recall ever creating either visible horror or guffaws of laughter.

My father used to tell us how he once proudly asked a visiting French woman to close the door only to discover he was in fact telling her to shut her mouth. Easy mistake to make.

And several of my colleagues at the Herald have tales of similar embarrassing moments.

News editor Grant Bradley couldn't understand why people in Japan recoiled from his question "Where is a beer machine?" until he discovered he was actually telling them "I am a beer machine."

Arts editor Linda Herrick went to what she thought was a pharmacy in Milan in pursuit of shampoo and tried to augment her Italian by pointing to her hair. She ended up with headache pills.

Entertainment writer Rebecca Barry went into a small shop in Italy and tried to order a chocolate muffin but ended up with hot chocolate instead. However it all ended well when the proprietor gave her the muffin as a gift. "I overdosed on chocolate that day."

Several of the Lonely Planet respondents also had entertaining - and in some cases anonymous - stories to tell of their efforts at cross-cultural communication.

Ajay told the clerks at a bank in Yangon that she needed a toilet and they pointed to a room. "Relieved, as my bladder was killing me, I burst in, immediately unzipping my jeans. But much to my shock two ladies were sitting in the room. They saw my underwear and screamed." Once things had calmed down the ladies directed Ajay to the bank's toilet. "The clerks apparently pointed to the office any time someone asked a question in English."

When the zip on Jamie's jeans broke he went into a tailor's shop in Jordan and, after consulting his phrase book, pointed to his fly, said "Ana lazem zip hun" or "I need a zip here." Unfortunately the word "zip" sounds rather like the Arabic word for "penis" and his request produced considerable confusion.

Nicole went into a pancake restaurant in Hungary and, seeing "Pruska Ferenc" on the menu, asked for it. "The waiter looked at me strangely and said I couldn't possibly have that. When I demanded to know why not he replied, 'Because that's our chef'."

Alison Crump couldn't understand why Russians looked disbelieving when she told them "I am a New Zealander and I am not married." Then she discovered she was actually saying "I am Miss New Zealand".

Still, all embarrassing moments aside, it is hugely rewarding to learn even a little of the language of the countries you visit.

Not only does it allow you to perform essential activities - like finding a toilet or ordering yourself a couple of beers - it also helps you to understand the culture of the country you are visiting and to get to know the locals.

And that, surely, is at least half the point of travelling to a foreign land in the first place.

- NZ Herald

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