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5×5: Five Things You Should Do In (At Least) Five Languages

When people say “I know X languages,” it’s hard to guess what they actually mean. Their expertise usually ranges from deep and thorough knowledge to just a few swear words. Today’s post is about the golden mean: I’m going to write about five social functions you should be able to perform in as many languages as possible. This, of course, is not a definite list – in fact, several of these were inspired by quirky hobbies and practical jokes of some friends of mine! Treat it like a guideline – and an invitation to explore further.

1. Introduce (yourself and others)

This is so crucial, it would be on anybody’s list – and in fact, this is one of the first things you are taught in many language classes! It’s still worth thinking about, though – your introductions will depend on where and how you usually make them.

Learning a generic, one-size-fits-all introduction is probably a good survival strategy. But depending on the nature of your language use, where you go from here will differ. A businessman on a conference in China will probably go for a formal introduction, specifying (in brief) his position and specialism. A backpacker traveling around Italy, on the other hand, may decide to learn a more informal way of introducing herself to people she meets along the way.

2. Order Two Drinks (cheers, Tom!)

This is my friend’s quite ambitious project: he wants to be able to order two beers in as many languages as possible.

The philosophy behind this is simple. Being able to order a beer (or whatever your drink happens to be) is generally a useful thing. And ordering two beers means that you never have to drink alone!

Now, you would probably be able to get by just using body language and a fair amount of finger-pointing. But body language may sometimes land you in deep trouble. And if you manage to impress the bar staff / your new friends by ordering drinks in their own language, you can treat this as a beginning of a free language lesson. Enjoy responsibly.

3. Call For Help

It probably pays to overlearn this, and keep it as simple as possible. We’re talking worst-case scenarios here. Let’s not get into details or gruesome examples: this one is a must.

One mistake people tend to make here is relying on their phrasebooks in times like that. Why is this a problem? Firstly, phrasebooks get in the way of actually calling for help: locating the right page and phrase is never easy when you’re calm – much more so when you’re stressed! Secondly, even modern electronic phrasebooks cannot be trusted to deliver your message strongly, quickly and forcefully.

So, for this one function, don’t count on your book. Learn it. Practice it. Drill it.

And hope you never have to use it.

4. Pay A (Universally Polite) Compliment

This one is nice, but takes some thought. Due to cultural differences, a compliment in one language may be interpreted as a sexual innuendo in another, only to form an insult in yet another language!

The first step would be to choose a compliment that would work in many languages. In business contexts, “good job” or “well done” would do the trick – maybe expanded to “I really appreciate what you did…” In everyday life, saying thanks can evolve into complimenting on a similar basis. Instead of simply saying “thank you,” you can say something like “you’re very kind” or “that means a lot to me.” These not-so-direct, veiled compliments will still make people feel nice. They’re useful enough to learn in many languages – as the need for them is likely to arise quite often.

5. Get Rid of Somebody Assertively

Who said you have to be polite all the time? And, secondly, who said you can’t be strong and decisive in another language?

Everywhere you go, there are people whose company you will enjoy and welcome. And sure enough, there are those who you would rather not see again – not this time, or maybe not ever. Once more, let’s not get into examples: the need for an assertive obliteration of unwanted company is, sadly, universal.

So get ready for it. First, write it down in your mother tongue. Go for something like “You’re making me uncomfortable. I’m not enjoying this. Go away. Now.” Then, learn it in as many languages as you please. As with calling for help, this one is probably best overlearnt: after all, these situations can get pretty stressful. Prepare for a forceful, but calm delivery. Caution: this will be a surprise to somebody who doesn’t expect their language from the likes of you. Be ready for whatever comes next; hope for the best (i.e. ditching the person), but expect the unexpected.


What else would you add to this Polyglot’s toolbox? Share it in the comments!

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One Responseso far.

  1. Mena says:

    For me, its always come in handy to know how to smoothly say “No problem. Give me a sentence and I’ll translate it” in every language you claim to know. This is because, without fail, an incredulous person is bound to say “oh yeah? You speak X? Say something.” Its a great response.