Hello everyone, I have just returned from Romania and had a lovely time there. On my blog, I have written a much longer piece on trying to learn Romanian in three weeks and how I got on in a country where only about 31% of the people speak any English. I would just like to provide you with a quick summary here on what areas you ought to focus on when you are preparing to travel to another country where you have to speak a foreign language.

In Poiana Brasov, Romania

1. Asking for directions

I found myself asking for directions a lot in Romania – after having gotten hopelessly lost in Brasov on my first morning, I decided it would be prudent to always ask for directions even if I was 90% sure I was walking in the right direction. So you need to be able to ask in the language, “excuse me, where is (insert name of place)?” I found that in Romania, once people hear that I am struggling in Romanian and I am clearly a foreigner, they will switch to English if they are able to – you don’t even need to ask. But even if they don’t speak English, they can still give me directions in Romanian; hence you also need to be able to understand simple directions. Let’s assume you didn’t understand what the other person said in his/her language, you should then be able to say words like, “is it there? Left? Right? Straight ahead?” And of course, you need to learn how to ask, “where is the toilet?”

2. Money and payment

This was particularly useful as well – usually you will be presented with a bill and you just need to pay the amount on the bill, but here was an example of when I needed to deal with numbers and I was so glad I spoke enough Romanian to do so. I was in a small shop where my friends and I had bought a few items: ice cream, fruit juice, chocolate bars, water, some fruit and when the cashier (who spoke no English at all) totaled up the items, I thought, hang on – that just isn’t right. So I picked up each item and asked him, “how much is this?” And he gave me the price in Romanian – sure enough, as I added up the figures, the total price was much less than the figure originally presented to me. It turns out that when he had started totaling up my bill, he had already scanned a rather expensive item from a previous customer and “forgot” to cancel it. Now it could have been either a totally honest mistake or a scam to try to cheat me of my money – either way, I don’t think I would have been able to resolve that situation without being able to do numbers and prices in Romanian.

In Brasov, Romania

3. Buying tickets

As I made my way around Romania on public transport, I had to buy my train and bus tickets in person there and none of the staff spoke any English at all. Let’s face it, in a country like Romania, well educated graduates who have good jobs will speak English very well – but how many well educated graduates end up working at a ticket counter in a train station in a small town in Romania? Oh these people are friendly and helpful – they just can’t speak any English at all. So you need to be able to say things like, “two return tickets to Brasov, what is the price? What time is the next train to Brasov? Is it cheaper if I buy a return ticket?” If you’re lucky, there may be a helpful English-speaking local around who could help – but otherwise, you need to have enough vocabulary to get your travel tickets on your own.

4. Food items

I ate at loads of places where they didn’t have any English menus because they catered primarily for a local clientele. The food was good and cheap but the staff spoke no English whatsoever. Firstly, you need to be able to read a menu by understanding basic words like beef, pork, fish, chicken, soup, bread, salad, pasta, vegetables, milk, fruit etc. Secondly, you need to be able to ask for certain times, like, “please give me a _______”. Sometimes, you may need to ask someone what an item is, so it would be useful to be able to say, “What is this?”

Bucharest by night

5. Other polite phrases

It is always good to greet someone – like when you walk into a shop or a cafe, the workers there are likely to greet you and it is always good to be able to reply in their language. Likewise, it is also necessary to learn how to say “thank you” and the “you’re welcome” response. I always like to say thank you and goodbye after leaving somewhere like a shop or a restaurant/cafe where I have just had service. Another one that is very useful is “sorry” – you never quite know when you will need to apologize, but it could be something like accidentally blocking someone when getting off a train or stepping on someone’s foot. Another very useful phrase I like is “excuse me” – which you would need when trying to make your way through crowded places.

I have heard too many people make the assumption, oh they may not be able to speak English fluently but surely they can understand a little bit” as an excuse not to even bother trying to speak another language. However, you would be amazed how many people I have encountered who simply do not understand any English at all. Now we’re not just talking about more exotic locations like Tunisia, Russia, Turkey, Sri Lanka or China here – I have also encountered non-English speakers in countries like Belgium, Holland, Germany, Norway and France where people generally do speak English. The fact is when the other party speaks no English, what little knowledge of their language that you may have will go a very long way and it will help you solve many of the problems you may encounter on your travels. So that’s it from me on this topic. Many thanks for reading!

In Bucharest, Romania