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Courtesy is the universal language

In recent years, I have visited places where the people speak Spanish, French, Arabic, Thai, Berber, Chinese, Nepali, Tibetan, Hindi, Lao, Swahili and Khmer.

Sad to say, I don't speak much Spanish, French, Arabic, Thai, Berber, Chinese, Nepali, Tibetan, etc.

Lao? Swahili? I barely speak English.

But I had a wonderful time on those visits, and the people seem not to have gone to war in affront over my incapacity to speak their language.

Some people pick up languages the way the rest of us pick up colds. I hate them. They stumble around for a second or two with someone else's syntax and vocabulary, and then in minutes sound like Georges Pompidou or Pilar Montenegro or Khamtai Siphandon, the president of Laos.

Me, I'm with the sainted Frank McCourt's father, who said, "You can't teach an old dog a new bark." I have studied languages all my life, yet they flow out of my mind like sand. I cannot master any of them, and what little I know abandons me when I need it most and I am left to babble like a lunatic to some startled citizen hoping to hear something intelligible in his tongue.

But it doesn't wreck my trip.

We are so fortunate that the rest of the world is so far ahead of us in languages: In so many places English is available like aspirin. Yet, as the interlopers in the equation, we have a major responsibility to try, too. I do try my best, and it may not be much, but mostly, it works.

"Of course, it's always wonderful to speak a local language," says Don George, global travel editor for the excellent Lonely Planet guides and Web site (, himself a world traveler. "A lot of people don't have a knack for languages, but they shouldn't let that keep them home."

George has traveled all over the world and lived overseas as a writer in the past two decades. He speaks some French, a smattering of Greek and some Japanese after living there for two years, he says.

"That's it. I am constantly going to countries where I have none of the local language," he says. "I don't let it slow me down."

And neither should we. I quickly confess to the near paralysis that comes over me when the person across the table, across the counter or on the street can't make heads or tails out of what I am trying to say. I know a little of the frustration that befalls one when we can't communicate. I appreciate the slight perceived for my not having much of the lingo of the land I am visiting.

But I try. I get the books from the library. I take out the language tapes. I attempt to master a few words and phrases that are printed in most good guide books and on most travel Web sites. How insulting would it be to not do that little bit of preparation? No matter what I look like, I decline the title of "ugly American" when it comes to at least trying.

"That's what you have to do," George says. "I set out to learn the basics, the "thank you' and "please' and "how much?' vocabulary. That will take you a long way. If you make an effort, people will do a lot to help you. People want to be nice; I see it all the time. People everywhere want to communicate, but they want you to try a little. It's not too much to ask."

George endorses the obvious: There are travelers who can be obnoxious.

"One thing that contributes to a negative image is how you carry yourself, rather than necessarily what you do or not do," he says. "Certainly not even trying to use the language can be a factor. But fluency without a good attitude is no help.

"If you have an attitude that's intolerant or obnoxious, you can speak like a native and still miss the point of what's going on. I know a guy who worked diligently at mastering Greek but didn't seem to care about Greece. People picked up on that quickly. I had about one-tenth of his language, but I think I got along so much better."