Can’t learn the language before you go? Fine. How about the alphabet?

Unlike many of you, my globe-trotting comrades, I don’t have much talent for speaking foreign languages. Though I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to learn Spanish (and French and Arabic and Russian and…), I simply can’t envision myself ever becoming fluent. But that doesn’t mean all that language-learning effort was entirely for naught. While my studies have taught me that fluency is probably out of the question, they’ve also taught me something else: I’m pretty good at learning just a little of lots of languages. And that’s good, because when you’re traveling, sometimes just a little is just enough.

It’s easy enough to study a phrasebook for an hour or two on the plane ride to your destination, but just a little more work will bear much more fruit. For example, learning foreign alphabets is one skill that comes a lot easier than it might seem, and is incredibly useful as well.

A long time ago, as I was looking at those strange-looking Cyrillic letters in Rocky IV (that’s the Dolph-Lundgren-as-Ivan-Drago classic), I never imagined that I could make heads or tails out of them. But years later, after studying the Cyrillic alphabet for several hours and comparing it with English, the letters started to look a lot more familiar. With some practice, I could eventually make out Russian cognate words like bar, president, airport, and Vladimir Putin.

Written Arabic had always looked like a maddening series of squiggles and dots, until I put in a couple hours for a few days, and tried to figure out what exactly the letters were and how they sounded. Before long, the squiggles turned into words, and though I could only recognize cognates and proper names, I impressed my friends when I told them I knew what this Arabic Burger King logo said (that’d be “Burger King”).

Admittedly, this isn’t much. It probably won’t help me converse with the locals, or bargain with the merchant for a lower, non-foreigner price. But it’s more than I thought I could do, and it’s a start. Put in a couple hours of work, and on your next trip you might be surprised as to how many bars, banks, and Burger Kings you can recognize.

Posted by | Comments (2)  | May 23, 2008
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

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