The first thing that people usually learn to say in a new place is the niceties; the equivalents of “hello,” “goodbye,” “excuse me,” “thank you,” and the like. Based upon the last weeks in Thailand and Laos, I think this is the wrong approach.
Locals aren’t that impressed when I say hello or goodbye or thank you in their tongue. It’s what all the foreigners say. It’s also not all that practical, as the locals understand the English versions of these phrases. As a matter of fact, we have often heard locals answering their cellphones with the English salutation, “Hello.” So, knowing these phrases in the local tongue is nice, but it lacks much impact and is not all that valuable for getting around.
But learn numbers and money phrases – like how much does that cost, and that’s too much, and how to say sixty-seven-thousand-five-hundred kip – and now you have something useful and impressive.
When I speak about the cost of a meal or a purchase in the native tongue, just stating the number written on a receipt causes folks to take notice. Pull out the proper amount of local currency when a person tells you the cost in their language, and you are a super star. Doing this often results in me being asked if I speak the language.
It’s also very practical. Eavesdrop on a money conversation between locals, and you know the real going rate – without the tourist tax. Negotiate a price in the local language, and you’re more likely to get a proper deal.
So, first things first…Learn to talk money and numbers.