Often-used phrases listed in travel books—most of them concerning directions to the nearest train station or restroom—are surely helpful tips to keep on hand when traveling, but having thank you in the local language as a knee-jerk response, without needing to look it up in a book or on our smartphone, will take us further with locals than we might realize. Even one word of thanks can create a lovely and memorable moment. Often, that initial connection is followed by conversations where the use of hand gestures and facial expressions communicate as effectively as words do—if not more so.
Before I set out to explore a new country or region, I memorize thank you in the local language, repeating it aloud until it’s as natural to me as English. My European and Asian colleagues, friends, and students are amused that I consider the mastering of one word to be an accomplishment, since most of them speak three or more languages with fluidity. They’re surprised that our melting pot nation doesn’t encourage multiple language learning despite the influx of new citizens from other lands. When they ask me—as they usually do—why Americans are not expanding their linguistic horizons, I tell them that the United States is separated from other countries by vast expanses of ocean, so we’re not exposed to language the way Europeans are. Also, too many English speaking Americans who are surrounded by other English speaking Americans hold fast to the faulty belief that everyone in the United States does—and should—speak English, so there’s no reason to learn even a simple thank you if they’re not going to use it in their daily lives.
This is an unfortunate belief for Americans to have, both at home and when they travel abroad. I’m not suggesting we try to reach the impossible goal of becoming fluent in a foreign language each time we travel. My simple suggestion is to memorize one word of thanks, and once we’ve brought it into our vocabulary, use it at home, too. Here in Los Angeles, hundreds of languages are spoken. I’ve used my thank you skills in local restaurants and shops where employees speak Mandarin, Japanese, Thai, Hindi, Swedish, Portuguese—and it always improves the quality of my day to see their pleased reaction.
There might be situations where ‘thank you’ is difficult to call up in the moment, especially when the language is wholly unfamiliar to us. When this happens, a pneumonic can help jog our memory. In Turkey, I used the pneumonic, ‘take sugar and cream,’ for çok teşekkür ederim. In Hong Kong, m goi, became ‘mmm, good.’ In the Netherlands, dank je vell became ‘thank you well.’ In Bali, matur suksma became ‘maturity sucks more,’ and the response of ‘you’re welcome’—suksma mwali—was ‘sucks more, really!’ But sometimes a pneumonic can go hilariously awry. In Thailand, ‘you’re welcome’ is mape-un-drai. My American friend created ‘mop and dry,’ but when he had to use it in the moment, he bowed his head, hands in prayer position, and said, “Mop and Glow.” We’ve never let him forget it, and it still makes us laugh.
When there’s more than one language or dialect in a single country, it’s a good idea to memorize thank you in the regions you’ll be visiting where that language is prevalent. Castilian Spanish is spoken throughout Spain, but I prefer to say thank you in Catalan, Galician, and Basque when visiting their corresponding regions. While traveling through Peru, I memorized solpayki, since Quechua is more common than Spanish in the small villages nestled in the majestic Andes Mountains. In Switzerland, the language switches from German to French to Italian within a day’s driving trip. India has more than twenty official languages in addition to hundreds of regional dialects; I found that a bow of the head worked in areas where Hindi, the most widely spoken language, wasn’t understood. Of course, English is spoken by a huge percentage of the population in India, but why should that stop us from expressing gratitude in the native language?
Still, there are situations where locals, although grateful for the effort, remind us that it’s not necessary. While driving through Wales, I found it challenging to create a pneumonic for ‘diolch.’ After struggling to remember the word, and feeling embarrassed for mispronouncing it, I was told by several Welsh people not to worry about thanking them in their ancient language since they didn’t speak it, either.
This year, I’ll be traveling to three countries I haven’t visited before: Albania, Greece, and Morocco. I’ve already memorized thank you in Albanian, Greek, and Arabic, and when I correspond by email with my contacts there, I make it a point to end my email with a thank you in their language.
While I admit that it doesn’t seem to be a huge achievement to call up the simple translation of one word, I’ve reaped the two-fold benefits: my efforts show the native speaker of that language that I’m honoring them, their country, and their culture. And it also allows me to enjoy the delighted smiles of others whom I connect with only briefly, but won’t soon forget. Expressing gratitude in the local language requires little effort, but it makes all the difference in the world.