Language wrestling: the sport of international travelers

Ever been in a foreign country and trying fairly competently (or not) to speak to someone in the local language, only to have the other person reply in English?  Perhaps you even reply to their reply in the local language again, but when it’s their turn they insist on going back to anglais.

The back and forth exchange can continue for quite some time, but usually one party or the other eventually throws in the towel and concedes.  I call this ‘Language Wrestling’, and I play to win.

Look, speaking a language that’s foreign to you but local to where you are takes as much guts as it does technical skill and practice.  But as long as you’re willing to look and sound like an idiot (I’m happy to do both), then this can be good fun and you’ll likely improve your language proficiency to boot.

The hardest language wrestling matches to win are those fought against service personnel (waiters, hotel employees etc.) on their own turf, in mid-range establishments frequented by plenty of tourists.

I guess you can’t blame these folks; many probably wish they were doing something else, and their limit for enduring butchered requests for the exact same product or service probably ended about 10,000 times before you showed up that day with your phrase book vocabulary.

My tip to win a language wrestling match in these cases is to throw your audience off by starting a dialog having nothing to do with where you are.  So as you’re about to order dessert, ask in the local language if the waiter can settle an argument about ‘whether Night Rider is still in re-runs in this country.’   That might just throw them off enough that you have a chance of winning at least one round.

I’ve found that employees in higher-end establishments – the very people who are often college educated and fluent in English (and generally several other languages)- will usually back down pretty quickly during a language wrestling match.  Sometimes they won’t switch to English at all.

Hold on, though.  I don’t consider this a true language wrestling win, because usually this is sort of a “pity forfeiture.” The front desk manager at the Paris Intercontinental probably attended the Sorbonne (or maybe the Hotel School at Cornell) and likely speaks and writes English better than many native English speakers.  But they learned in management training that’s it’s good practice to humor bumbling tourists who can later tell their companions, “See, honey?  I just asked for a 2nd room key, and she understood me!”

The real and fairest language wrestling battles are fought long and hard on the street (asking for directions) or in restaurants that are frequented primarily by locals and which have only local-language menus.  And then there’s that most challenging and intimidating battlefield of all: the dreaded local language phone call.

A few tips: know your opening, cold.  Be prepared to literally understand only half of a local language reply (and hope that context can fill in the rest; credibly fake it to your mono-lingual traveling companions if you can’t).  When you’re about to panic and break down, go back to your primary sound bite again, a la “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Eventually you may just wear down your target and score a point.

Good luck on your next match.  HOOrah.

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