I’m a souvenir snob. “I Heart” wherever t-shirts aren’t my thing, but I’ll happily spend days searching for the perfect mementos. Clothes are good because they’re practical and when I wear them in public I get to show off. I eagerly wait for people to compliment my boots so I can say “These? Oh, I got them at the black market in Ulaanbaatar”. I’m just like people who buy Gucci t-shirts (thank you Macklemore and Ryan Lewis), but I pay even more than they do, once you factor in airfares and accommodation.
Bits of the local language make good souvenirs too. We try to learn a few basic phrases for each country we visit because it’s useful, polite and it’s a memento with the added bonus of making me feel smart because I can now count to three in over four languages. That’s practically a European level of multilingualism.
I’ve learnt, through experience, that there are a few things to keep in mind when trying to learn a new language, even if it’s just a couple of words, if you want to save yourself embarrassment.
Firstly, it’s best done sober. While alcohol can lower any natural inhibitions that might prevent you from enthusiastically mangling somebody else’s language, it also gets in the way of the brain actually remembering any of it the next day. I drove my Russian speaking tour guide up the wall by insisting that he re-teach me how to say Za vashe zdorovie each and every day of our three week tour.
Lack of sleep also gets in the way of meaningful learning. While staying in San Cristobal de las Casas I saw a similar frustration in my Spanish tutor’s eyes as we went through the flash cards once again and discovered that, in a week of exclusive, one on one lessons I’d learnt how to say “apple” and that was it. Late nights playing cards at the hostel, combined with the kind of quality sleep you can only get on a lumpy mattress when sharing a room with five other snoring girls, had completely killed my ability to memorise anything. “Tell me what you did yesterday, in Spanish,” the long suffering Jorge would ask, and I’d stare at him blankly. The seconds would drag out as I realised I couldn’t remember yesterday, let alone how to say it in Spanish, and “no recuerdo” just wasn’t cutting it.
“No recuerdo” didn’t cut it with the lady at the laundry across from the hostel but that’s mostly because I was actually trying to say “I don’t understand”, and had forgotten the word for that too. She patted me on the arm, gave me back my clean laundry and sent me on my confused way.
Pronunciation is important. I remember watching a Mexican woman laughing hysterically at the subtle but important difference between “anos” and “años” (one means “years” and one really, really doesn’t). In Mongolia we practiced the standard “hello” and “thank you”, or in this case “Сайн байна уу” and “Баярлалаа”. Our Mongolian tour guide sternly told us to stop trying because English speaking adults could never pronounce Mongolian. Even if we’d been children with malleable brains and jaws, the chances of us getting the hang of it was 50/50. We then spent the rest of the trip trying to roll all the r’s in “tractor”, which is some kind of strange initiation test for newly arrived 5 year olds.
So I can order a can of coke in Russia, participate in drinking toasts in Vietnam, roll all the r’s in tractor, and mime really, really well in Spanish speaking countries. Maybe they’re not the kind of skills that will advance my career or make me a better person, but they make great souvenirs.