Day 163 – Can’t speak French

One of the aspects of travelling that I particularly enjoy is language. I’ve always been fascinated with foreign accents and words ever since I entered the “French Verse Speaking competition” at school aged 13 & realised what a real French accent should sound like-not mine I hasten to add!

Our trip has definitely been a tale of two halves with three months of almost total Latin American Spanish followed by 9 languages in the last three months.  It has been a fascinating linguistic journey and whilst my Quecha or Bahasa Malay are not yet fluent…ahem…spending some time understanding the origins and nuances of each language has been a thoroughly rewarding experience.

For those of you still reading, I thought you might be interested in some of my observations…

Latin-American Spanish is the clearest in Peru and Bolivia; these are both great places to visit if you want to brush up or begin your Spanish adventures. Argentina and Chile use a sizeable number of colloquialisms in comparison to Castillian Spanish, they also speak pretty quickly which can make understanding both difficult and amusing in equal measure!

Taxi drivers are a wonderful source of new vocabulary and political background to a country. One of my favourite conversations was with an Argentian driver in Buenos Aires understanding his views on the Falkland Islands.

It’s an obvious one but worth repeating – people the world over appreciate you trying. In some countries and with some French and Spanish speaking friends I’ve been able to have an actual conversation, in many it’s been the basics, in all cases people have opened up & smiled a little more when I’ve tried to speak the local language.

My favourite example of this from the trip was actually all Rew’s idea, he set me the change of learning Quecha to distract me from the challenges of the Inca Trail! If you’ve not come across it, and I hadn’t previously, Quecha is the language of the Inca. It’s spoken across the high Andean regions including Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. It’s the first language of many people in all of these countries and importantly the first language of our team of 19 Inca Trail porters. Our patient trail guides taught me the basics phonetically as we walked along. If they knew a trickier section of path was approaching I’d suddenly find myself being tested on ‘numbers 5-10’ or ‘how do you say “I’m fine thank you”‘ & pretty quickly the precipitous drop was almost forgotten! Learning some basic Quecha was one of the most challenging things that I’ve done on the trip but it paid off as the porters flew past us carrying their huge packs and we could shout “see you later” to them in their native tongue- much to their surprise and delight. By the final night our whole group was picking up Quecha which culminated in a Spanish-Quecha-English warm down & stretching session complete with five of our porters!

The most useful phrases I’ve learnt have been almost exactly the same in every country we’ve visited. These are…

  • Thank you
  • Hello, how are you
  • I’m sorry
  • I don’t understand
  • Please
  • # 1-10
  • Can I take a/ your photo
  • Let’s go
  • Delicious!

These have got me out of almost every situation I’ve found myself in!

It’s never too late to learn a new language. I mean that both figuratively and literally e.g cabin crew are a great way to learn the new language en route to a destination! By the time I landed in Kuala Lumpur from Sydney I could count to 1000 and explain that I can’t speak Malaysian! All thanks to Malaysian Airlines amazing crew and a one hour lesson in the galley whilst most of the plane were sensibly asleep!

One of my final linguistic challenges has been Mandarin. A good friend of mine, who’s also bilingual English-Spanish, embarked on learning Mandarin some years ago. I was always hugely impressed by this feat and made some basic attempts to grasp the language on our three week trip in China. All I can tell you is Diana, I’m impressed! Not only does Mandarian use symbols rather than the characters that we’re used to in the UK, but it has an entirely different tonal structure. In short that means that the same word, said with one of four different tones, means four entirely different things…you want to get that tone right!  My mandarin stretches to about 15 symbols (including the numbers 1-10!) but spotting them on signs suddenly made the whole mass of language seem less scary.

I enjoyed an hour or so of learning the basics of calligraphy whilst in Yangshuo. Chinese characters are all made from a combination of 8 brush strokes. Just writing the number one – a straight horizontal line- is complicated though with 4 separate movements to make the stroke! Mandarian was simplified in the 1950’s under the leadership of Mao in order to enable and encourage more Chinese people to be able to read and write. This ‘simplified Chinese’ is what you see throughout China today. Key changes including altering the direction that words were written; moving from vertical to horizontal and across the page, moving from right to left to left to right! In Hong Kong they continue to use Traditional Chinese and so a visit there will show you pre-Mao Mandarian.

Still with me?  I guess the summary is that for me there’s been a whole other adventure as part of this trip on top of seeing the countries we’ve visited. Connecting with people in their own language, no matter how basic, has been scary and exhilarating but ultimately rewarding. I’m pretty sure being able to say “hello” in Lao or Cambodian will have limited use once we’re back in the UK, but I know for certain it’s made my travelling experience so much richer.

(Words by Niki)


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