Deborah Tan, Opinions

Should We Speak The Language Of The Locals? – Deborah Tan

When travelling, do you make an effort to at least say “Good morning” and “Thank you” in the language of the locals? Deborah Tan admits she struggles with whether to do it or not.

“Doumo arigato gozaimashita!” the assistants bowed and shouted as we walked out of one of Nagasaki’s most famous cake shops. My associates – Japanese – returned the courtesy, “Arigato gozaimashita,” as they filed past the staff. When it came to my turn, I simply smiled and said, “Thank you.”

foreign language

Before you pop in for a Basic French For Dummies book …

While a bit of me wanted to say Thank You in Japanese, there was another part of me that told me not to do it. Why?

To be honest, I’ve always felt like a bit of a fraud whenever I try to speak another language. Be it in Malaysia or Madrid, I’ve always felt uncomfortable doing greetings in the local language. While I know how the locals will appreciate any attempt on my part of speak their language, I can’t help but wonder if they cringe inwardly whenever I go, “Ohaiyo!” 

Because the basic is more than just Good Morning and Thank You
Most travellers think just being able to say Good Morning and Thank You in the language of a place they’re visiting is enough, but it’s not. I personally feel that if I can’t even ask for directions or order food in the local language, I have no right to be massacring it. Even when I do say “Arigato gozaimasu”, I tend to look really apologetic because I bet they feel the same way I feel when a random tourist in Singapore goes, “This is very good LAH!”

But sometimes, it is necessary
Two days ago, I had the privilege of having dinner with a farmer and his family in Nagasaki, Japan. This is a simple homestay experience where the family would host visitors in their home, giving them an insight into how they lead their lives by getting them to work on the land and cook dinner. Their generosity and warmth truly touched me. Even though I spoke no word of Japanese, the farmer and his wife never once stopped trying to communicate with me.  I felt I needed to break out of my linguistic shell and make an effort to at least say Thank You in their language.

So, what should we do?
This is one of my life’s greatest dilemmas. Really. On one hand, I feel like I don’t want to be a “linguistic party trick” by being able to say Thank You in 10 languages. On the other, I can see how culturally important it is for us to be able to communicate effectively with the locals.

I guess the key to it is the element of authenticity. Are you just throwing out “Danke” and “Merci” to impress the people, trying to show them how well-travelled and cosmopolitan you are? Or, do you believe this is the best way to show your appreciation?

Nothing screams “I’m an annoying tourist” more than someone going at a “Thank You” with a fake accent and a lazy slur – the latter is attempted to make you seem as if you are a “local who can’t be bothered to talk properly”. I have heard cringe-worthy performances of “Merci” complete with a breathy voice and a sing-song lilt, and I have heard awful renditions of “Gracias” with an over enthusiastic “rrrr”.

I wrap this post up with only one lesson I’ve learnt:

When in doubt, the best way to show someone your appreciation – universally – is with a smile, good strong eye contact, and a sincere Thank You in YOUR language.

About The Author: Deborah Tan is a founder of Material World. After 10 years of working in magazines Cleo and Cosmopolitan Singapore, she is now a freelance writer/editor who works on this website full-time. She is still trying to master saying “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” when she hands her namecard to a Japanese businessperson. Follow her on Twitter @DebTanTweets.