USEFUL FOREIGN PHRASES (Or Not)


One expat’s guide to getting by in languages you don’t speak.

a guest blog by author Kevin Dolgin

Long ago, I determined that there are three broad categories of linguistic fluency. The first is the perfectly comfortable level, ranging from your native language to any language in which you can converse with ease, although at the lower end of this scale you probably have a headache at the end of the day.

The second category consists of those languages in which you can generally make yourself understood with the aid of sweeping gestures and meaningful grimaces.

The third category comprises languages that are a complete mystery to you.

I’m fortunate to have three languages in the first category and one or two more in the second. This means, though, that every other language is in the third category. I have a theory about these. For me, these languages are either/or affairs. If you travel to a country in which the principle language is a category III language, then either you work on it enough to get it to category II, or you learn only how to say “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and one phrase that is perfectly nonsensical.

The principle reason for the nonsensical phrase is that it’s a sure conversation-opener. No one will imagine that the only thing you know how to say in their language is “My hovercraft is full of eels,” (to borrow someone else’s nonsensical phrase) and therefore an immediate cultural exchange will ensue. Really, this works.

I thought I would give you a number of these, in case you plan on traveling to countries with category III languages. I’ve given them to you in the languages in which I use them, but you can use the same nonsensical phrase in a variety of languages, and I confess that I have learned the first phrase I cite in four or five different languages, ranging from the original Swedish to Cantonese.

I’ll also point out that for the most part, I’m not trying to spell these words properly. I’m using approximate spellings, as if they were spelled the way one would expect (or at least the way I would expect), and not with silly squiggles and such. I’m doing this because the last time I tried to write something in Swedish in a column (about Ingrid the intelligent rat), I was informed via email that I had not gotten it right at all, so I’m not even going to attempt it any more.

Enough of the preliminaries; let’s get to the useful phrases.

“My hedgehog isn’t stupid.” In Swedish: “Min igelkot e inte dum.”

This was my first nonsensical category III phrase. I used to hang around with a Swede, who decided to teach me some of the language, which was a thoroughly frustrating exercise for us both. Eventually he gave up and suggested: “Learn to say ‘Min igelkot e inte dum’ and no one will expect it’s the only thing you can say.” I therefore learned this and we tested it out on a couple of friends of his who came from Göteborg to visit. When I met them I rose, shook their hands, explained about my hedgehog, and smiled. They looked very surprised and started speaking rapid Swedish to me. I protested, explaining that this was all I knew, which they refused to believe, and a long conversation ensued (in English), which quickly veered toward more interesting topics. Hence was born my theory about nonsensical phrases.

This phrase has served me well and long; I even employed it when giving a speech to 350 Swedes, with much the same effect (at a ski resort in the middle of Sweden, but that’s a story for another column). The most convincing example, however, did not occur in Sweden at all, but in Massachusetts, of all places.

I was in a bar one evening with a couple of Americans and a very unusual Argentine who had a French name and lived in Mexico. He was part pharmaceutical executive, part fashion photographer, and part party organizer, and he had been telling us a highly embarrassing story about an incident involving fifty cardiologists, an airport security system, and a nipple ring (I won’t get into the details, but it ended with his assertion that it would have been much worse had he been wearing his other body jewelry).

Anyway, at that point, a young man entered the bar accompanied by two young ladies. They had apparently stepped in out of a commercial for the World Wrestling Federation, because he was certainly built like a member of that esteemed organization, and was glowering as well. For all I know, he was indeed a wrestler — “Nick the Neanderthal” or something.

He looked around the bar, and disappointment registered on his prominent brow ridges, probably because there weren’t enough people around to admire his upper arms and the women clinging to them. The three of them sat near us and ordered something (champagne for the girls, warm blood for him). We ignored them and continued our revelry.

Before long, the wrestler muttered something, ostensibly for the benefit of his companions, calling into question the masculinity, or at least the heterosexuality, of our Argentine friend, who luckily didn’t understand it (he was just crazy enough to challenge this guy to a duel or something). I therefore hastily took the floor in our little group and began expounding on my theory about category III languages and nonsensical statements (see above). In the course of explaining this, I taught them all how to say “Min igelkot e inte dum.”

Immediately, the two girls sitting with fireplug-man squealed, leaned over, and said, “Din igelkot e inte dum!?” Then they started speaking in rapid Swedish. I stopped them, explaining that this was all I could say, they didn’t believe me… etc. The normal routine.

They left their companion and came to join us, asking all the while about how I had learned to say this, and who we were, and what we planned on doing later that evening. Needless to say, this annoyed the inert mass of muscle with whom they had entered the bar, but he was too confused to do anything about it except to grunt “let’s go” to them. They replied with what I assume is a Swedish insult, and he left, after making a rude gesture at us all.

“There is a penguin in my closet.” In German: “Es gibt ein Pinguin auf meinem Schrank.”

German is, in fact, more of a category II language for me, but it’s pretty low on the scale, and besides, this is a great phrase to use in German. I particularly recommend it for hotels, if you’d like to get to know the staff. This will also provide you with an introduction to the word “bitte,” which will inevitably be the response of any German to this phrase. Bitte is a great word. It can mean many things, depending on the intonation. It can mean “please” or “thank you” or “are you out of your mind?”

Needless to say, it’s in the latter sense that it’s generally employed when responding to the phrase “there’s a penguin in my closet.” Of course, you don’t want to be nasty, you need to explain rapidly to the hotel staff that there is not, in fact, a penguin in your closet, and that you were just employing your single phrase of German. If you do not explain this quickly, them being German, they will dutifully send someone to remove the penguin from your closet, and that would not be a very nice thing to do to the cleaning staff.

“I would like a large chessboard.” In Spanish: “Quiero un gran tablero de ajedres.”

This actually began as a useful phrase, since I really did want to buy a large chessboard (in Toledo, if I remember correctly, which is a beautiful city that you should definitely visit). I wandered around asking for large chessboards, and did indeed end up buying one (upon which I regularly play). However, I have since employed it as a nonsensical category III phrase.

This has come in handy in a number of instances. One comes to mind from an evening in Barcelona (which reminds me that I’ll have to write about Barcelona soon… how I love Barcelona!). I was having dinner on the terrace of one of the delightful restaurants near the navy museum, on the harbor. I was alone, which is unfortunate in a city like Barcelona. Anyway, the waiter was a very pleasant gentleman who spoke to me in Catalan, and then in Spanish. I speak neither, and I explained this to him in slow Italian, but then told him that I wanted a large chessboard in Spanish. He was perplexed, he shook his head and pointed at the menu, apparently reiterating that this was a restaurant and that chessboards were not food. I tried again to explain, in Italian, that this was all I could say. He eventually understood and was intrigued.

It was a slow night in the restaurant, and the waiter, who it turns out was an avid chess player, sat down after a while and we engaged in a spirited conversation about chess (specifically about the king’s gambit opening), in a mix of Catalan, Spanish, and Italian. A wonderful evening.

“Is that a kind of frog?” In Japanese: “Koreiwa kairu no ishu des ka?”


The whole “koreiwa [thing] no ishu des ka?” construction can be very useful. For instance, if you replace “kairu,” meaning frog, with “sakana,” meaning fish, then you can pretty much know what can and can’t be eaten in Japan, which is handy, since you can’t even make the usual supposition that things must first be dead, let alone cooked, before you eat them. If it’s a kind of fish, though, then you can eat it, even if it’s trying to swim or crawl away. However, the frog phrase will get you more conversational mileage, at least partially because the answer is rarely “Yes, that is a kind of frog.” (“Hai, korewai kairu no ishu des.”)

This particular phrase has actually proved most useful to me in Paris. I once saw a young Japanese man standing on a street corner on the boulevard Sevastopol, studying a tourist map. He had a backpack on, and sewed onto the backpack was a cartoon character that seemed to be a kind of frog. With no introduction I said, “Sumimasen [excuse me], koreiwa kairu no ishu des ka?” This was one of the few times that I have actually been able to stun a Japanese person. “Hai! [yes],” he replied. I nodded significantly and walked away.

It should also be added that the way one comes out with the words is important in Japanese. If you are a man, you should spit the syllables out as though you were expelling vile-tasting marbles from your mouth. If you are a woman, you should murmur them demurely, while behind them you suppress something between a giggle and a plea. I confess that I would hate to have to be a woman in Japan.

“I love you; I want to spend my life with you.” In French: “Je t’aime; je veux passer ma vie avec toi.”

French is a category I language for me, and this is hardly a nonsensical phrase, but I thought I should include this one all the same, not for its shock or conversational value, but rather because it’s possible that if you live abroad for a while you may end up needing it. Of course, by that time, I assume French (or whatever the language of your host country might be) would be category I for you as well, but you should be warned about this one either way. I suggest you think twice before saying it — use the utmost discretion, because it can have a profound effect on your life. However, if used in the right circumstances, and especially with the right person, then I can tell you from personal experience that this phrase is capable of bringing you unspeakable joy.

 

Kevin Dolgin is a professor of marketing at the University of Paris, Pantheon-Sorbonne. He writes the column “Kevin Dolgin Tells You About Places You Should Go in Europe” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and regularly contributes to Opium Magazine. Kevin’s stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including Absinthe Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, CrossConnect, Night Train Review, and The Vincent Brothers Review. To learn more, visit his website www.kevindolgin.com.

*The author’s new book the new book, “The Third Tower Up from the Road: A Compilation of Columns from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency,” is now available at The Travel Store at EllenBarone.com

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Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the group travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".