Don and I both have a soupçon of French. We learnt a smattering of Italian before we went to Italy, and I have a smidgen of Spanish.

So far we’ve had to communicate (or not) in the following languages: Hindi, Italian, Spanish, French, Lao, Burmese, Thai, Cambodian (Khmer), Vietnamese, Indonesian, Swedish, Dutch, and German. And English.

I’m very grateful that English is our first language since it is the international language, and anyone working in the tourist industry in any country has at least some English. Enough to get by anyway.

It started in India last October. On the drive from the airport I asked the taxi driver how to say thank you and please, and hello and goodbye. I remember he told me shukriya for thank you. Some time later I was told that is the Urdu word. Danyavaad is thank you in Hindi. It’s what we used anyway and it seemed to be successful.

It began a pattern. Every new country we’d start learning some words as soon as we arrived. We’d try to learn six words – hello, goodbye, please, thank you, how much, and most important of all – I’m sorry. In reality we only ever really learnt, and used, three words – hello, thank you, and I’m sorry. They were the most important, and helped ease the way even if verbal communication could not go beyond that except in English. There have been some occasional mildly frustrating times trying to communicate with drawings and sign language, but for the most part we haven’t found communication at all problematic. That being said, we don’t go too far off the beaten track, and go with a guide if we do.

It’s such a difference from when we first set out on this journey, taking Italian lessons before we left, and full of fear about how we’d manage. Now we know we’ll manage. It’s no longer an issue. There’s always someone around to help. In Yangon we were trying to communicate with our driver to wait for us while we went to have lunch. It was pretty funny really, all the pointing and gesticulating. Suddenly, there on the crowded sidewalk, was someone who spoke both Burmese and English who translated for us.

Sometimes verbal communication just can’t happen and that’s okay too. And sometimes it isn’t needed. In a tiny, fairly remote, and poor village in Laos I had a lovely connection with one of the older ladies of the village just because I could say hello, and thank you, and tease her to smile for the camera, and bought a little hand-embroidered bangle from her, and we smiled some more, and hugged each other. Who needs words?

A language lesson:
Hindi: hello= ram ram (for Hindu) or namaste (for Hindu and Muslim), thank you= danyavaad.
Thai: hello= sawasdee (the second s is silent), thank you= kop kon ka (for women), kop kon kraab (for men), I’m sorry= koh tod
Cambodian: hello= susawday , thank you= akun, I’m sorry= soumtoh
Lao: hello= sabaidee, thank you (very much)= cop chai lai lai, I’m sorry= koh tod
Burmese: hello= mingelaba (the g is hard, such a sweet word), thank you= chezutinbaday, I’m sorry= taungbumbaday

And one extra word in Lao: bopinyang. What a great word. It means don’t worry, no problem, relax, all is well, all unfolds as it should, it is what it is, nothing’s wrong, it’s all okay.

People are generally surprised and delighted when you just speak even these three words. Don often found that just saying mingelaba to someone resulted in an instant transformation from a suspicious glare to a friendly welcoming smile, even with teenage boys. Sometimes people take it to mean you actually speak their language. From time to time I’ve had to say I’m sorry when taking photos and it’s nice to be able to say it in a way that’s understood, and I’m sorry is extremely useful when someone is trying to sell you something you don’t want to buy. It’s even brought a laugh from time to time.

Children and adults respond well when we speak these words in their language. Teenagers frequently make fun of us 🙂

What have we discovered? We’ve discovered what we already knew: that people are people all over the world, that respect goes a long way towards enabling interaction, that open-heartedness is the best connector, and that communication is more that just words.

Photo of the day: Cambodian child, Phnom Penh.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.