This past weekend a friend and I went to France.
I don't speak French.
For some reason, it didn't occur to me that this would be a huge problem. I took French for 3 years ages ago, and made no effort to retain what I learned; in reality, I hated French for the entirety of those years. Still, I figured that if I reviewed a little before we left it wouldn't be too hard to get by. Plus, France is close to Spain, so some people probably would speak Spanish, and the internet said that most people in the town we went to spoke English.
False. Barely anyone spoke English, and I didn't encounter any Spanish speakers at all. I guess I've been spoiled by the places that I have travelled; I've travelled quite a bit throughout Spain and a bit in Great Britain; even in Portugal everyone that we encountered spoke either English or Spanish.
I really don't want to perpetuate the stereotype of the stupid American who travels and expects to hear English everywhere, but I know that it was my own fault for making stupid mistakes when it came to preparing for this trip. So, it only makes sense that I think about the lesson that I learned!
How to prepare for a short trip to where you don't speak the language:
1. Prepare ahead of time. As in, not two hours before the flight. Give yourself enough time to actually retain some of the information you're looking up.
2. Listen to the phrases out loud. Being able to read a useful phrase, being able to say it, and being able to understand it when it is said to you are three completely different skills. Practice each of them before leaving.
3. If you write down useful questions, make sure to research possible answers. Being able to ask "Where am I?" is not very useful if you don't know basic directions.
4. Numbers. Similar to number 3, "How much" won't get you very far if you don't understand numbers.
5. Learn basic verbs. I didn't think to look up the infinitives of basic verbs that we use all the time here. If I went back I would be sure to know things like to be, to have, and to go, in addition to phrases.
6. Situational phrases. Airport parts, general signs, bathrooms. All important.
It seems like a lot of work to prepare to go somewhere where you don't know the language. Despite what I've just said, I actually did do some leg work ahead of time; most of it was only halfway useful, though. I think that this comes down to knowing what you need to be prepared. If I were to be going somewhere for more than a weekend I would probably invest in a pocket dictionary, and actually really make an effort to learn before hand. It would be worth the time and effort to not feel completely useless for days.