This is the fourth in a new series of posts about my experiences of learning Greek.
Also, a pre-emptive P.S. (a “pre-script”?) in case youre wondering… Where are all the apostrophes in this blogpost?
“Nonsense, you speak very well!”
This has got to be one of the top three most common things* I hear from locals when I am living (or at least spending more than a few weeks) in another country and communicating as much as possible in the local language.
Here are the conditions under which the phrase normally occurs:
- I am way out of my depth in some communicative scenario. I take a deep breath and just use whatever I know in order to get as far as I can (normally before it all breaks down and they switch to English).
- I only actually know a few phrases in the language—and because of Condition 1, I have uttered these few phrases about a million times. I have therefore benefited from intensive real-life drilling, you might say.
- I have just faltered when they said something I didnt understand, but to which they clearly expect a response, and admitted (in the L2), “Er, sorry… I dont speak much [Greek/Czech/Portuguese/whatever other language is the latest object of my feeble attempt to be a fluent multilingual]”.
And heres the thing. They say it sincerely, with no pretence of flattery, genuinely expressing how impressed they are that I can communicate so well in their language.
BUT I CANNOT.
“Really!” I protest. “Youre very kind. But I really dont speak much [Greek/Czech etc.].”
And then I continue—but in my own head, of course—”Its just that since I arrived in this country a few weeks ago, Ive said this damned phrase SO MANY SQUILLIONS OF TIMES that every item in my extraordinarily limited repertoire of L2 phrases has been rehearsed ad nauseum until I can say it as fluently as my own name (even though I cant seem to pronounce my own name yet in any way that helps you spell it L-A-U-R-A). Plus Im something of a pronunciation geek, so Im pretty good at convincing you that Im more fluent than I am because I like to notice things like connected speech features, allophones, final-consonant devoicing and clusters that arent permissible in English but which youve been using without a second thought since you were about 2 years old. Hey, wanna talk about phonotactics?”
Meanwhile, they are continuing to jabber at me in [Greek etc.] until a minute or so later, when they realise my blank expression isnt for show. At which point they assume a vaguely disappointed look as they finally realise that Im no longer following, despite things apparently having started so well…
Anyway, Ive long since learnt to accept the compliment and keep doing my utmost to feel, next time it happens, like I might actually deserve it.
So what are these magical phrases?
After quite a lot of travelling to various cities and learning rapidly how to manage the same typical daily interactions, heres my suggested phrasebook for effective basic communication in another language. This wont get you far, but it will get you far enough to be a pleasant and polite visitor to your chosen foreign land, to make sure you can get something to eat, and maybe even to get you the occasional compliment on your language skills.
I must confess that this is a somewhat selfish blogpost: Im actually going to be something of a digital nomad over the next couple of months, staying for at least a few days in at least 6 different language environments, only 1 of which I can claim to be fluent in (French) and only 2 others of which I already know these phrases to a compliment-winning degree (Czech, Greek). So this blogpost has given me a good excuse to collect in one place all the things that have been floating around my head in the past few years, resulting in one handy list which I can print out and prepare before I start a new episode of Lauras International Language Adventures. (And the bits in purple italics are just for you!)
Note: The phrases below are in no particular order of importance—theyre all important! As I say, this list comprises just those phrases I recommend for survival if youre the type of person who wants to communicate in the local language as much as possible (which I usually do).
- Hello. (formal, when entering public spaces like shops or offices and acknowledging anyone elses presence there)
- Goodbye. (formal, when leaving the aforementioned spaces, sometimes the same as #1)
- Hi. (informal, for greeting friends)
- See you (soon)! (informal, for leaving friends, sometimes the same as #3)
- How are you? / Whats new? (optional addition to #3)
- [How to answer #5 and whether to do so honestly or just be very English and say “very well, thanks” even if your cat has just been run over.]
- Would you like to sit down? (useful for offering to give up your seat on public transport, which I seem to need surprisingly often when I travel)
- Please, sit down! (or other way of insisting on #7 when the elderly/pregnant/disabled person inevitably politely refuses your first offer)
- Where are the toilets? (self-explanatory)
- Downstairs/upstairs/over there/down the corridor. (optional response to #9—but normally just knowing to use and obey a pointing finger is enough)
- The bill, please.
- Do you take cards? (optional addition to #11)
- [The numbers 1-20.]
- Excuse me. (for getting someones attention, e.g. because you need to ask them about #9)
- Excuse me. (as in, youre in my way and should know better than to stand on the wrong side of the escalator, which I learned within my first hour here when an old man pushed me aside with his cane while muttering words that are unfortunately cognates with “idiot” in other languages I understand, tsk)
- Do you need help? (not for you to use, but for you to understand when shop assistants use it)
- No thanks, Im just looking. (when you want the shop assistants to leave you alone so you can Google translate various signs and labels in peace)
- Thank you.
- Im looking for… (and then you can just look up a translation for whatever it is you need—this is particularly useful for pharmacies, I find, where trying to mime your symptoms isnt always an attractive prospect)
- Which floor? (it still surprises me how often I need to use this)
- Like this. (SUPER useful for when you already have some of what you want but you need more and dont know how to begin translating/explaining it, so its easier just to show them an example. Ive used this a lot when buying fabric to match something Im already working on and Im not even sure in English what the material is!)
- Its too (light/dark/expensive). (Of course, there are many possible adjectives you might need but I find that most can be mimed, like “big” and “small”. Ive found these three harder to mime and, as I often seem to be looking for things in particular colours, “light” and “dark” are quite useful, particularly in combination with #24.)
- Perfect! (to be added to #21 when someone in a shop is very helpful and you leave happily with whatever you had gone in for)
- Youre very kind. (to be uttered—while smiling bashfully—in response to the misguided compliment with which we started this blogpost…)
And two bonus questions, if youre really getting into the swing of things and want to keep discovering new things, and have people nearby who are willing to humour you:
- How do you say…in [Greek etc.]? (useful for when they keep trying to switch into English but youre THIS CLOSE to expressing what you want to say in the L2 and really want to persevere)
- Whats happening? (useful for when you wander into some exciting local event but cant make sense of whats going on)
Youll note that I havent included “Do you speak English?” or “I dont speak much [Greek etc.]” above because I have never actually really needed these. If I start speaking in the L2 with one of the 27 phrases above, the other person inevitably (and quickly) either answers the former (by just switching to English) and/or surmises the latter anyway!
Id love to hear what other phrases youd add to this list from your own experience…
*The other two are “Where are you from?”, sprung on me within the first 10 sentences (max) of our dialogue, and “Do you know where…is?” (from other tourists, regardless of my notorious lack of navigational skills—I guess I must just generally walk with purpose and thus always appear to know where Im going… ha!).
P.S. In case you missed it… What happened to all the apostrophes in this blogpost?