Language and Culture


The agency you’re going with should give you training before you leave, and provide you with an orientation programme when you arrive, so that you know enough to get by and not offend people, but it won’t hurt to get a head start.

Learning a foreign language isn’t something everyone finds easy, but even knowing a few words will communicate respect for the people you’re serving and gain you a lot of goodwill. We all have joked about Brits abroad speaking English loudly and slowly so the foreigners can understand, but how many of us do it without even realising? You can get audio courses from the library, or even download free software. Try at the very least to learn some basic greetings, tell people your name, and ask where the toilet is! The more you can manage, the sooner you will feel comfortable in your host country. Here are some key phrases you ought to try to manage if you can:

Hello/Good morning/Good afternoon/Good night/Goodbye

Do you speak English?/ I’m English/I don’t understand/Speak slowly

What’s your name?/ My name is… /How are you?/ I’m fine

Yes/No/Good/Please/Excuse me/Sorry/Thank you/You’re welcome

Its’ tasty/I’m full/I’m thirsty/Water/Where’s the bathroom?

I’m going to… /where is the bus?/Stop/

I want… /How much is it?/ (Too) expensive

I feel sick/I need a doctor/Where is the hospital?

Culture is a minefield in which many short-termers have got stuck . Some of the big mistakes include giving people things with your left hand (practically every non-western culture) and pointing your feet at people when sitting (east Asia). Not eating food you’ve been given can be a huge insult even if it looks and tastes disgusting to you. Or ostentatiously disinfecting your hands every time you shake hands with someone. Or poking your camera in the face of someone who is suffering without asking permission first. Think about how you would feel if somebody treated you like that.

There are far too many cultural issues to list them all here, but the way round every situation is to smile broadly, and try and copy the locals. They are probably used to people like you being an unsophisticated barbarian, but if they can see you’re making an effort they will be much more accepting of you. The important thing is to remember that although customs in your host country may be very different to yours, they’re not ‘wrong’. They’re just different, and just because you’re accustomed to doing things a certain way, doesn’t make you right!


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