This article is not an advocate for the obnoxious English tourist abroad – they’re annoying, we all know it. However, learning languages is hard. I am attempting to learn Italian, but I do not speak Italian. On top of this, travelling is fun. We’re going to end up in places where we don’t speak the language, and that’s okay. Here’s just a few tips for when I found myself in a similar situation in Italy that I hope will help you, especially if you are travelling alone.
An obvious one, but memorising a few useful phrases before you go. I mean really memorise, not glance at them in a phrasebook the weekend before. I wrote useful ones out and stuck them on my wall. For me useful meant basic greetings, how to order/ask for something and – the one I used most – how to ask for a one way train ticket. There are ticket machines with English options in the bigger stations, however the smaller stations just had a person. I’d gone over this phrase so many times though that I felt comfortable with this, and I always got the right ticket (whether down to my pronunciation or their guess work I don’t know). You can look up phrases online to help with pronunciation.
A paper map. By this I mean a map that isn’t on a phone/tablet. I’ve mentioned this before, but it really is useful when lost. I tried to learn left, right and straight forwards but in the slight panic of being lost this of course goes right out of the window. Having a map (even a Google maps printout which was my go to, though most towns sell a city map) is so useful when lost and there is a language barrier. A map is also a lot easier for someone to point at compared to a tiny screen that keeps auto-rotating as you nervously watch your phone in a stranger’s hand.
Don’t be nervous. You may look like an idiot, pronouncing everything wrong and having to gesture everything to get through a conversation, but it’s all good practice. Two main conversations stick out in my mind, and there was very little talking in either. One was with the mum of a friend of the person I was au pairing for, we sat in the park with no common language between us – just lots of smiles. I distinctly remember ‘shall we sit down in the shade?’ and ‘yes, that would be nice, good idea’ – all done with a gesture and a nod. Another was a conversation at the beach (they had seen the Beatles in Liverpool by accident!) done with a few words and drawings in the sand.
Be polite. Though I wanted to try and speak in Italian, I was aware I was in the way. I was making life harder for the person in the coffee shop. Though in every instance I was treated kindly, I reminded myself not to expect this and not mind the odd grumpy person. They were just trying to get on with their day, and did not have time for a confused English person. I was ready for this, but did not need it. Everyone really was so friendly.
Phrasebook, and also possibly a small dictionary (though not really necessary if you’re packing light and have a phone with internet). The phrasebook is useful for emergencies, the dictionary good for trying to learn while you’re there. The best time to learn, even if you’re there relaxing, is while you’re in Italy.
So overall, be polite, not scared and be prepared to have to act out an airplane. Also, of course, learn Italian! I am trying, and definitely on the Duolingo. A friend has also suggested reading the Harry Potters in Italian. If you have any learning tips please do let me know, it would be very helpful. (Thanks to the posts I’ve read already with excellent advice on learning Italian, you know who you are.)