The language of travel

Learning languages to help communication when traveling overland is a multi-sided issue. On the one hand it opens doors and makes friends if you can chat to someone with even a few words of their own language, on the other hand it can get you into trouble fast, and then leave you high and dry with no prospect of getting out of it. I’ve spent most of my adult life in the Middle East and North Africa and as such I’ve picked up a big chunk of Arabic, though since Arabic is spoken from the Atlantic shores of Morocco to Oman on the Indian Ocean there are a huge range of variants. My Arabic is a hotchpotch, some from Lebanon, some learned in Morocco, some picked up in Egypt and some from Arabia. As a result when I try to have a conversation it’s a bit like someone who has learned English in Cockney London, outback Australia and Highland Scotland trying to make themselves understood in rural Louisiana. It’s supposedly the same language, but…..!

Memorable examples have been my going into a tire repairer’s place in backstreet Cairo and asking the guy to put a new inner tube in my tyre. At least, I thought I had. The Egyptian mechanic’s face did that “The foreigner has just said something really stupid but I’m not going to laugh” thing, so I smilingly asked what I’d done wrong. It turns out that the Arabic for inner tube is shomba but I’d just asked him, mistakenly, to put a new shorba in my tyre. Shorba means lentil soup. A similar incident occurred in rural Arabia when I asked a goat farmer if he made cheese and was surprised when an angry look appeared on his face. I had confused the Arabic word  jaban for jabn – one means ‘cheese’, the other means ‘coward’.  Mercifully I’m not dead yet.

Hotel key card, Cambodia

Further fun and games happened when I broke down in the hills of Oman a few years ago late at night. A coolant hose blew and I hadn’t got a spare, so I wandered over to a local village where the mosque was just turning out after evening prayers. There was a strong smell of Arabic coffee – sweet, and laden with cardamom and saffron, and curious faces peered as me as I wandered over. Much back-slapping and greetings when I said I was British, and a whole gang of the lads said they would help with my need for a radiator hose. However. Confusion. Standard Arabic for ‘hose’ is the same word as they use for ‘elephant’s trunk’ – khartoum. (Incidentally this is why the capital of Sudan is called Khartoum – because the Nile flows past the city in the shape of an elephant’s trunk). The mad foreigner needs what? A khartoum? What’s that? He wants an elephant? No he wants the nose of an elephant. What? These British are crazy. It turned out, after much hilarity, that Omani Arabic has a different word. In Oman the word for “hose” is hose. Once this was ironed out, we fixed things up!


Swahili is a wonderful, musical language spoken widely in East Africa, and anyone who has been traveling in that beautiful part of the world may have picked up some phrases. However it’s also an easy language to make simple mistakes in, much to the enjoyment of the locals, who in general have a very well-developed sense of humour. The Swahili word kuelewa for instance means ‘to understand’. The word kulewa however translates as ‘to be drunk’ so be careful when you want to say ‘I understand’ – you may be saying something else, as I found when chatting with some Maasai warriors in Amboseli National Park. In fact most languages have pitfalls for the unwary – a friend caused laughter on a train in India where he was trying phrases in Hindi – in trying to say ‘I am a student’ Main chatra hun  he actually said Main chata hun which means ‘I am an umbrella’.

Luckily some signs are bilingual – Lebanon

So vocabulary can cause slip-ups of huge proportions, even when we aren’t aware of it. Monty Python fans will be well aware of this after the ‘hovercraft full of eels’ phrasebook sketch. Luckily the locals are of course well aware that you are trying their language to “show willing”and make an effort – and their sense of humor is often as well-developed as yours!

It doesn’t have to be just languages that are unfamiliar to many Americans and Brits, like Arabic or Swahili.  Even languages that we are familiar with, like Spanish, French and Italian can cause slip-ups, especially when tired. Driving back from Africa to Britain once, tired and pulling in at a French campsite in my Defender, I was trying to engage other travelers in polite conversation but all I wanted was gin and tonic and a sleep, after a huge day on the freeways of Europe. At one point my girlfriend, next to me in the passenger seat of the Land Rover, collapsed in giggles just as the Frenchman I was chatting with gave me the same politely-frozen look that the Cairo tyre repair guy had done. I speak French pretty well, but my brain was marmalade after eight hours on the road (to a Brit this is a long way, and eight hours on freeways in a Defender will scramble anyone’s gray cells. Road cars, first and foremost, they are not). In my tiredness I had confused the French words peut etre (perhaps) with petit pois (garden peas). So the confusion on the face of the friendly Frenchman who had invited us over for a glass of wine when we’d set our tent up – only to be answered by this mad Englishman who smiled and announced “peas” by way of reply – can be forgiven.

Roadsigns in Khmer – glad I had a GPS

English mutates into a million versions as well. In North Africa there’s Englabic – a mixture of Arabic and English. In East Africa a lot of folk speak Swinglish – a mixture of the local Swahili and English. Hollywood helps a lot – the phrase ‘hakuna matata’ has spread like wildfire after the success of The Lion King and it is much-used in Kenyan Swinglish, for example.

Similarly there’s often hilarity when a traveler discovers brand names abroad which don’t always conjure up the wholesome image that the manufacturer indended. In Spain, for example, there are Bimbo bread, Ram milk and Vigilante cockles. In Iran you can buy a brand of washing powder called ‘Barf’. I had to travel to Cairo to find an Italian brand of sweets that mix the flavours of latte coffee and mint (latte and menta) to give birth to the brand name Mental, which is British slang for ‘lunatic’. Some years back, GM wondered why their ‘Nova’ car didn’t sell at all well in Spain – until someone pointed out that, in Spanish, ‘no va’ means “won’t move”. These are some of the more printable examples. The list goes on.

Very literal signage – Oman

Even hand gestures can get you into trouble. As many service personnel have found, the thumbs-up symbol which seems universal in our culture means something very rude in Afghanistan (and also Iran). Similarly, the peace symbol, two fingers raised towards a friend, if performed with the palm facing towards the owner, can get you beaten up in Britain and Australia, where it means ‘go to the devil’. After World War Two and Churchill, and again in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, the same symbol reversed means ‘victory’. The hand gesture meaning ‘A-Ok’ – thumb and index finger making a circle, with the rest of the fingers forming a crest, can get you in deep trouble in Germany, Turkey and Brazil where it means something very rude. The Mediterranean gesture of putting fingertips and thumbtip together and gesturing upwards with the cupped hand means ‘wait a minute’ in Greece, Italy and many Arabic-speaking nations – but in South America it could get you a smack in the mouth because there it very much means something else. To cap it all, in parts of Bulgaria nodding your head means ‘no’ and shaking your head means ‘yes’. Sometimes you just can’t win!

Luckily, one thing that does seem pretty much universal is our willingness to laugh – at each other and also at ourselves. If a traveler tries a few words in another language, generally the locals approve of his or her attempt to communicate in something other than the universal English – their own tongue. Mistakes are generally forgiven with great good humour. Whether or not you try and stumble your way through an unfamiliar language when travelling, one thing’s for sure – a universal visa and pass key in most circumstances is a smile!


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