Leaping over Europe’s Language Barriers

Two people having a conversation in Milan, Italy
Speaking slowly and clearly shrinks the language barrier, and brings you closer to Europe. (photo : Dominic Bonuccelli)
By Rick Steves

If you have an upcoming trip to France and don't speak French yet, be realistic, and don't expect to become fluent by the time you leave. Rather than frantically learning a few more French words, the best thing you can do at this point is to learn how to communicate in what the Voice of America calls "Learning English." Your European friend is doing you a favor by speaking your language. The least we can do is make our English simple and clear.

Speak slowly, clearly, and with carefully chosen words. Assume you're dealing with someone who learned English out of a book — reading British words, not hearing American ones. They are reading your lips, wishing it were written down, hoping to see every letter as it tumbles out of your mouth. For a better shot at being understood, talk like a Dick-and-Jane primer. Choose easy words and clearly pronounce each syllable (po-ta-to chips) Try not to use contractions. Be patient — when many Americans aren't easily understood, many tend to speak louder and toss in a few extra words. (Listen to other tourists talk, and you'll hear your own shortcomings.) For several months each year, I speak with simple words, pronouncing…very…clearly. When I return home, my friends say (very deliberately), "Rick, you can relax now, we speak English fluently."

Can the slang. Our American dialect has become a super-deluxe slang pizza not found on any European menu. The sentence "Can the slang," for example, would baffle the average European. If you learned English in a classroom for two years, how would you respond to the American who uses expressions such as "sort of like," "pretty bad," or "Howzit goin'?"

Keep your messages grunt-simple. Make single nouns work as entire sentences. When asking for something, a one-word question ("Photo?") is more effective than an attempt at something more grammatically correct ("May I take your picture, sir?"). Be a Neanderthal. Strip your message down to its most basic element. Even Neandertourists will find things go easier if they begin each request with the local "please" (e.g., "Bitte, toilet?").

Use internationally understood words. Some Americans spend an entire trip telling people they're on vacation, draw only blank stares, and slowly find themselves in a soundproof, culture-resistant cell. The sensitive communicator notices that Europeans are more likely to understand the word holiday — probably because that's what the English say. Then she plugs that word into her simple English vocabulary, makes herself understood, and enjoys a much closer contact with Europe. If you say restroom or bathroom, you'll get no relief. Toilet is direct, simple, and understood. If my car is broken in Portugal, I don't say, "Excuse me, my car is broken." I point to the vehicle and say, "Auto kaput."