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Jim Eagles: Breaking down the barriers

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Knowing a few words of the local language can definitely help you to avoid many problems during a trip to foreign parts.

Over the years I've managed to get hopelessly lost in Japan through not being able to read street signs or ask directions, ordered a meal in Hungary that was entirely different to what I thought I was getting, and been ripped off by a taxi driver in Greece because I didn't understand what I was being charged.

That sort of thing is probably why most New Zealand travellers go to English-speaking places such as Australia, Fiji, Britain or the US.

But you'll miss a lot of fantastic experiences if you stick solely to English-speaking countries.

It really isn't very hard to achieve basic communication. Most guidebooks provide basic phrases such as "hello," "where's the toilet", and "that's too much".

With a few phrases and some judicious finger-pointing you can usually get by quite well.

Contrary to what you may think, most people, even the French, are usually delighted if a foreigner tries to use their language.

A typical example of the sort of reaction you'll get was provided by the owner of a noodle bar in Tokyo who was so delighted when I managed to tell him "This food is delicious" that he insisted I accept a serving of his special ice cream.

It's even more satisfying to be able to converse a little with locals, shop in their markets, understand directions, and maybe, if your language skills are good enough, even exchange a few ideas and get a better understanding of their culture.

That's why more and more travellers these days are taking language lessons, such as those provided by the University of Auckland's Centre for Continuing Education, to learn the language before going on a trip.

The centre offers 16 languages, ranging from old favourites like Spanish and French, to Arabic and Chinese.

Programme manager Jo Davies says that "feedback from tutors is that, especially at level one, a high proportion of students are doing language courses to enhance their travel experience".

An advantage of learning at the centre is that about 95 per cent of the tutors are native speakers and, says Davies, "they go back to their home countries quite regularly so they are able to provide a real taste of what their culture is.

"We certainly encourage that to be taught as part of a language course so when people go to a country they have a bit of a sense of what it will be like and also understand what's appropriate behaviour and that sort of thing."

The courses involve 24 hours of tuition and cost $211.50. Some involve two hours a week for 12 weeks, others four hours a week for six weeks. And in January the centre offered a Europe programme which pressure-cooked the courses into a week.

"We'll probably repeat that next year," Davies says, "because we recognise that the more intense courses work well for some people who aren't able to commit themselves for, say, one night a week for most of a year."

The big question is whether the effort of studying a language pays off.

Auckland Central resident Audrey Van Ryn certainly found it worthwhile taking a French course before she and her husband did an apartment exchange with a Parisian couple.

"Knowing a bit of the language is a real help," she says. "It means you can be more relaxed. You know what people are saying to you.

"You can do things like going to a show or getting around on the Metro that otherwise wouldn't be possible."

Even though Van Ryn reckons that four years of French at school and a year long stage one course at the centre for continuing education meant her language skills were still fairly modest she got a great reaction in Paris. "People were happy I was struggling with French rather than speaking to them in English."

Among her achievements were sorting out a credit card problem in a Chinese restaurant, managing to organise photos to get a Metro pass - "without being able to read the instructions we wouldn't have had a clue" - and, best of all, "A few people asked me for directions and I was able to give them."

Ina Lawrence hasn't had the chance to try out her newly acquired Spanish but she's looking forward to the opportunity.

Her interest in Spanish was sparked by three visits to Cuba where she helped set up a film exchange and did volunteer work.

"That involved mixing and working with locals, including living with a local family for a week," she says, "but while I certainly learned a little Spanish I realised that if I wanted to communicate properly I needed to study the language more formally."

Since returning to New Zealand Lawrence has done stage one and two Spanish at the centre and believes she's made big progress. "Now I've learned so much more of the language I want to go to Cuba again.

"I feel much more capable of holding a discussion. I now have the ability to give opinions and find things out in depth rather than having to rely on others to explain."

* For more information about the language courses run by the Centre for Continuing Education call 0800 864 266.

- NZ Herald

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