(Written by Him)
We are in the midst of what will likely be the most ambitious single trip of our lives. It continues to be (overall) expensive and our savings are turning into hotels, day trips, souvenirs and bowls of pho. A natural inclination when one spends any significant amount of money is an eagerness to achieve the best return. For me, knowledge of and a meaningful interaction with a foreign culture is a commodity I consider to be very valuable.
The local reactions to a Westerner speaking Vietnamese has in my experience been very positive! In the early stages I got a lot of help from our hotel staff. They all had excellent English and were delighted to translate anything I needed into Vietnamese (e.g. my 13 grammar sentences - see point 3 below). Armed with this new knowledge I began to drop some phrases into conversation as we went into shops, taxis and restaurants. In the more tourist friendly businesses it was taken as greatly amusing and appreciated.I was often understood here in the early stages.
The parameters of learning a foreign language in order to travel are generally the following: time and money are in short supply; no formal classes are available or suitable and; your first chance to speak the language will be in the taxi from the airport. These restrictions certainly applied to me and with them in mind here are my tips:
- Approach a new language as if it comprises a specific set of ingredients: grammar; vocabulary; speaking / pronunciation; reading / writing.
- I like to start by looking at the alphabet (if it is a language that uses roman letters i.e. not Chinese or Thai characters etc.) and also get familiar with the tones if any, e.g. Vietnamese has 6 tones. This will allow me at least make an attempt at pronunciation when I am looking at words and when I do learn the actual pronunciation it should not be too far off. You might also like to learn some common expressions at this point including, "hello", "please" and "thank you".
- Next I will look at grammar using the "13 grammar sentences" which when analysed and translated literally (word for word in the order of the target language) will give enough information to discover how 90% of sentences are structured and what the personal pronouns are e.g. "I give John the apple... She gives it to him." And so on.
- Next I like to learn the "helper verbs" including: "have"; "must"; "need", "can"; "would like" and their negatives in past, present and future tenses. I can then use these helpers with the infinitive of whatever verb I need without having to learn to conjugate every verb e.g. I need (helper verb)- to go - to eat - to sleep - to wash etc. Boom, grammar done and I have access to loads of verbs pretty quickly.
- Following verbs I like to learn vocabulary. Search google for a list of the 100 most frequently used words in English, translate those into the target language and learn those first. 10-20 a day is not too difficult. I will also learn the 15 most frequent verbs (infinitives only - see point 4). These 100 words & 15 verbs plus our grammar foundations will allow you to express yourself pretty well in most situations. The aim at this point is simply to communicate at a basic level, you do not have to be able to read the business section of the local newspaper.
- The experts advise you should be speaking in the target language while you assemble these foundations and there are forums on-line where you can chat with someone native in almost any language in exchange for some English lessons.
- Once the basics as above are there you will have surpassed the vast majority or your travelling peers, you will be appreciated by your hosts and suddenly you are having a very different travel experience than our Kerry man on the beach.