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Minding Your Language When Driving Abroad

By: Mike Kiely BA (hons) - Updated: 21 Oct 2011 | comments*Discuss
Verbal Interaction Uk English Language

A great deal of everyone’s driving experience is about communication. Think about the number of times you’ve let a fellow driver proceed ahead of you at a junction, either with a casual wave of the hand or a nod of the head or rapid eye movement. There are many situations, too, where the situation calls for a verbal interaction – for example, when filling up with petrol, asking directions, or answering a query at the lights from a motorist via the driver’s-side window.

Everyone takes the ease and speed of these interactions for granted, but transplant any of the same situations outside of the UK, and specifically within countries where English is not the primary language and it is clear that things can become more complicated. Yes, the eye swivel indicating ‘you go ahead’, or the nosecrinkle thanking another driver for a show of courtesy translate beyond borders; otherwise there is a clear case for doing a little preparatory work before taking to foreign roads.

The most obvious reason to brush up on the basics of the lingo is the simple ability to read road signs. Those, for example, advising use of headlights in tunnels or to slow down because of an approaching bend or traffic merging at a junction ahead are about the safety of both your own car and passengers but the welfare of other road users, too. So invest in a book or take the time to browse a website that will offer adequate preparation.

Common interactions

Phrases that cover common interactions are also invaluable. Take, for example, the aforementioned situation where you need to fuel up. Many petrol stations, in Italy for instance, are still manned by attendants, so having the ability to say ‘fill it up’, or ‘can you check the oil and tyre pressures, please’ are going to gain extra mileage with the locals.

The same applies to map reading. Having wrestled to unfold the thing in the first place from your position behind the wheel, it is less likely that a local volunteering to get you on the right road will lose patience with you and walk off if you can offer a little more guidance than vaguely pointing at an unspecific location on the map and shrugging the shoulders. Oh yes, and being able to correctly pronunciate your destination is another winner, not simply because some people may take umbrage with your inability to grasp the language but because they may not simply understand what you are trying to say.

Motorway rest areas and restaurants are more easily negotiated in the native tongue. One example is a cafe or eatery where the custom is to order and pay for the refreshments before handing the receipt to another operative who serves the items. Requesting and understanding the explanation of how the system works in that part of the world is less emotionally painful than irritating the staff by seeming to jump the queue and ending up with egg, metaphorical or otherwise, on your face.

Language skills

Rudimentary language skills may also pay dividends in interactions with the police. For some officers, tongue tied tourists can be something of a sport, so being able to ask questions as to why, for example, you have been asked to pull over may make all the difference in ensuring you pull away with only a proverbial flea in your ear rather than a hefty fine.

Of course, there is another type of language that every driver needs to pay attention to when driving. And it is not the type that you find in many phrasebooks, either. The problem with too many UK drivers is that they fail to appreciate that while they may struggle with other languages, many foreign nationals do not have the same ignorance of English, including words that may politely be termed ‘industrial’. As a result, it pays to err on the side of caution and not direct a stream of invective should someone pull out in front of you suddenly or fail to give way at a roundabout; otherwise you may find yourself in a sticky situation, made worse by the fact you don’t have the language skills to extricate yourself as quickly and safely as possible.

Travelling abroad should be a learning experience for everyone in the car, and a pleasant one at that. Getting to grips with the lingo not only will gain you valuable brownie points with the locals but enhance the whole experience because your verbal interactions may very well solicit valuable information on the best places to visit or eat. Local knowledge is also important when it comes to places to steer clear of. So ensure you’re not lost for words next time you slip your passport into the glove box.

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