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In my travels I always try my best to speak a language fluently (or better), but sometimes this is not possible, since I may be only spending a few days in a country.
As well as this, you need to start somewhere if you want to eventually speak fluently, and “enough to get by” is how I like to start!
For example, I've just spent the week around New Year's in Poland. This was actually for an Esperanto event (JES), but to get from the airport at Krakow to Zakopane and to talk to everyone outside of the event, I needed to be able to get by in Polish, which is a language that I've never learned before.
Of course, nobody was waiting for me with a sign at the airport or held my hand at the train station and interpreted for me when I needed to find where I was staying. Non-rich travellers have to take care of themselves, and this involves talking to locals outside of the tourist trade who may not speak English.
With just a few hours on the flight, I managed to learn enough Polish to get by and adequately communicate what I wanted to say for the basics of asking directions, getting the right train, and generally not being rude in forcing English on people who wouldn't understand it (which turned out to be quite a lot where I was).
If you are in a similar situation with another language, you can try the following to make sure you learn exactly what you need for your short visit.
Triage – priority on important words
A hospital triage is where the sickest (or dying) patients are seen to first, and those with bloody noses and sprained ankles just have to wait. This is the same level of urgency you have to apply to what you're learning when given a short time frame.
Because of this, you have to completely abandon grammar. Word genders, correct use of cases, etc. are almost never necessary for you to be understood. Grammar is the rules of tidying up a language to make it correct. Getting your point across does not require you to be correct.
If someone were to say in English “Where bus station?” or “These seat number 4?“, it may be incorrect and improper use of English, but the answerer will understand it – that's all that really matters at this stage. The triage for learning enough to get by in a few hours requires priority to be given to learning vocabulary, and to be very restrictive in what you learn.
Only learn the essentials
There are too many situations you may come across to be able to cover all possible vocabulary, so the only things that are important to apply to memory are those that you'll use most frequently and that are time sensitive (like “Help!”). Everything else, you can simply look up the word if you have a small dictionary or phrasebook in your pocket/purse, which you always should if possible.
The list of words and phrases I learn off for such a situation are quite limited: Where (not caring about is/are), that (for pointing and choosing), yes/no, one, and, hello, goodbye, please, me, excuse me, and very few other words are all you need to communicate yourself basically. Imaginative use of hand signals (or drawing pictures) and gestures are infinitely more useful.
Understanding the wording of their answer may not be necessary. I asked for directions several times in that trip in Poland and I didn't understand a word of what they said, but hand gestures (at least in the west) are universal for such explanations and I could understand how many streets down (hand hops) to go and whether to go left or right (pointing).
When you need to speak English, don't say it in English
Sometimes this isn't enough and you really do need to speak to someone in English to get what you need.
As far as phrases go, “I don't understand” and “Do you speak English?” are very important. I never actually say the English version of these; it can be quite rude to force English on someone without bracing them for it first, or asking politely. If they don't speak English, they may just look at you confused when you start talking. Even “Do you speak English” might not be something they ever learned, or have long forgotten.
If they don't speak English, but they understand that you do from your question, they usually produce a co-worker or smart teenage student that can talk to you. They will go to that trouble since you've gone to the trouble to say something in their language, and it's usually appreciated, and they associate their language's equivalent of the word English with that person, whereas they may not make the link when they hear you speak “noise”.
Whenever you do speak English, it must be slow and clear. I hear way too many native English speakers make themselves very difficult to understand to non-natives; a use of simpler vocabulary, clearly separating words and opening your mouth wide to exaggerate pronunciations when you talk works wonders. Repeating the same thing louder instead of rephrasing it with synonyms or different words just makes you look stupid and makes people like me roll our eyes at you.
What to study?
You can grab a phrasebook in the airport duty-free to study. I actually prefer Lonely Planet phrasebooks as my first book to study in the long term with a language, but for the basics they actually cover way too many situations. The Rough Guide series is a little better for this situation since their dictionary at the back usually has more words, and the amount of basic phrases at the start is actually enough to study on the flight over.
A pocket dictionary is not so useful because they usually use the international phonetic system, which I personally find very useful, but if you aren't familiar with it, then you may pronounce the word too wrong to be understood. Good phrasebooks have English equivalent phonetics that help a lot. The phonetics are all you need, and you can ignore the original spelling (unless it's for recognition, such as in signs like “exit”). Use memory techniques to help make it stick in your mind.
If you are more of an audible rather than visual person, then you can get an audio course to listen to on your flight and ignore how it may be spelt entirely, although these are usually not available at airports, so you should get it in advance. Your local library likely has a good audio course that you can copy to your MP3 player to listen to later. I find the phonetics in phrasebooks to be more than enough, but hearing the language in advance definitely helps you get a better feel for it. With tonal (many Asian) languages, an audio course is much more necessary.
Of course, I also applied this to getting some of the basics in Thai in my head to get started 🙂 I've settled well into Bangkok and on Monday I'll summarise my first 6 days here for those curious of the travel part of this mission (Edit: I'll stay in Bangkok for the week, so I'll sum up my time here after I've left) I'll summarise my first impressions of the language and my chances of achieving the mission.
I found Polish interesting in the little I've learned from it. Although not necessary from what I said in this post, I went further and studied how the phonetics of the writing system works. The currency, the złoty, is actually pronounced zwoty (that l with a dash through it acts as a w) and Kraków is pronounced Krakoov. The little Czech I have left helped me in some words like pokoj (room) and Nie rozumiem (similar to Nerozumím: I don't understand), but not much more than that without further study. Fluent Polish may be one of my missions soon enough – time will tell!