Before you go on holiday, or on a business trip abroad, it’s a great idea to learn a little of the local language. But getting along with people is about much more than just the words you say. There are other rules too, so here are our top tips to avoid misunderstandings abroad.
1. Be very careful when exchanging business cards in Japan: they aren’t just cards, but representations of the giver and should be handled with some ceremony. NEVER write on a business card or put it in your back pocket, as this is considered disrespectful.
2. Don’t talk about work over dinner in New Zealand, even if you’re having a meal with your colleagues. It’s fine to talk business over lunch, though.
3. In Muslim countries it’s considered an insult if you show the soles of your feet, so watch how you sit.
4. If you’re in Hungary and you’ve been told your meeting is at ‘fél négy’ (‘half four’), don’t turn up at 4:30 – ‘fél négy’ actually means half an hour TO four, so you’ll need to be there at half past three.
5. On the other hand, if you’ve been invited to a gathering in France, always aim to arrive 15-30 minutes late, to allow the host time to get ready.
6. Making a circle with your forefinger and thumb as another way of saying ‘OK’ is seen as an extremely offensive gesture in Brazil. As is the ‘thumbs up’ gesture in Iran, and showing your palm in Greece. It might be better to just avoid hand gestures altogether…
7. In Germany, not making eye contact when you clink glasses is considered very rude. It also, apparently, means you’ll have seven years’ bad luck in the bedroom. So even if you’re not worried about being thought bad-mannered, it might be worth making the effort. Just in case.
8. In Bulgaria, nodding your head means no, and shaking your head means yes, which is the opposite of what most of us are used to. This is worth remembering or you could get yourself into all kinds of trouble.
9. It’s been illegal to bring chewing gum into Singapore since 2004, because of the damage being caused to public buildings and facilities by people leaving their gum behind. You can also be fined for not flushing a public toilet.
10. In Russia, if you’re giving someone flowers, make sure you give them an odd number. Even numbers are for funerals.
11. It’s important to show respect to your elders in Asia, so don’t call them by their name; instead use ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’, even if you don’t know them.
12. When eating a meal in Spain, you’ll be expected to clear your plate, and leaving some food is seen as rude. In Russia, on the other hand, you’re expected to leave a little as a sign that your host has provided enough to fill you up. And in China, a polite belch when you finish eating is considered a compliment to the chef, although it’s frowned upon in many other countries.
13. Never say anything disrespectful about the king in Thailand, as this could land you in prison for several years.
14. Make sure you’re appropriately dressed before going to church in Italy. This means your shoulders, knees and midriff should all be covered, or you won’t be allowed in.
15. In Malawi, it’s common for people of the same sex to hold hands; this is a sign of close friendship, so don’t worry if someone tries to take your hand. It’s a compliment. Men and women holding hands is rare, though, and may be frowned upon.
As always, if anyone has any others, we’d love to hear from you!
Today we welcome back guest blogger Eve Pearce, with an interesting article about the demand for language learning in Spain, and its implications for the future.
It is rather ironic that while numbers of Brits studying a foreign language to A-level have dropped dramatically over the past few years, nearby Spain – officially out of one of the deepest recessions in its history but still struggling in terms of its high rate of unemployment – is undergoing a veritable boom in foreign language study, with the English language taking pole position, since some 78 per cent of all job offers demand this language from successful candidates.
The Spanish crisis, which has rocked the nation since its commencement in 2008, has also led to a greater demand for German and French language learning, since many Spaniards are considering migrating to these countries given the bleak economic forecast. In many private nurseries and schools, the study of Chinese is all the rage as well, since parents see this language as the difference that could make or break their child’s job application in the future. This level of competition is only logical, since the forecasted unemployment rate for 2014 stands at 26.4 per cent of the population. Vice-President of the European Commission and commissioner of Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, recently declared that although the unemployment rate in Spain has stabilised, it continues to be “unacceptably elevated”. The situation, he claimed, was similarly bleak in Italy.
Interestingly, despite the general consensus as to the value of learning foreign languages, the Mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella’s recent address to the Olympic Committee during Madrid’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics was deemed by many to be representative of the current failure of the public educational system to meet the demand for spoken English at an acceptable and truly functional level. In many ways, this is owing to the small number of hours dedicated to English in the public system curriculum, as well as the heavy focus on textbook-style teaching (which leans heavily on grammatical exercises) rather than on fluency and bilingualism/multi-lingualism. As a result, while most students are able to successfully complete intermediate-level exercises (involving the use of the simple past tense and conditionals, for instance), they are far less comfortable when asked to speak in public or to conduct business by phone. Meanwhile, those who are able to afford it are relying more on private classes with tutors, who are able to offer students conversational practise, one of the most sorely lacking activities in many schools and academies. Many adults (who are also flocking to EFL academies or completing online courses) frequently lament not having adequately learned English at the optimal point of their lives (i.e. in their early childhood) and now, more than ever, dreams of moving to greener pastures are being put on the back burner owing to this glaring failure in the system.
What, then, is the solution for this crisis-struck nation, at least in so far as language learning is concerned? There are a number of measures educators and those governing alike need to adopt, some of which may be:
An increase in the hours dedicated to English
If students are to gain the confidence they need to speak fluently in a variety of both social and professional settings, schools should consider not only elevating the number of hours dedicated to learning English, but also, perhaps, taking a leaf out of the book of many costly British and bilingual (Spanish-English) schools, where core subjects such as mathematics and science, are also taught in English. It is of great utility for students to be confident when counting in English and to learn to solve practical problems they can encounter in daily life in a second language (e.g. dividing into fractions, comparing items by weight, adding and subtracting, etc).
Learning other subjects in English also wrests from the necessity of contracting separate ‘conversation’ classes, since students grow accustomed to expressing their thoughts in English in a more effortless manner. During his time in office, ex-Spanish President, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero acknowledged that the flawed system of education in English was an “evident problem“, and vowed to implement new strategies into his government’s education plan. In Madrid, one in every three public schools offer between 30 and 50 per cent of their classes in English or another foreign language. The aim is to raise this figure to one in every three schools by 2015. Interestingly, neither Zapatero nor current President, Mariano Rajoy, speak English.
Government-funded EFL classes for mature-aged students
Greater access to classes run by fully qualified EFL teachers will not only help unemployed adults hone their language skills, they will also promote spoken English within the home setting, which is bound to benefit children in both a direct and an indirect manner.
The provision and adoption of useful materials in class
As spoken and listening skills are the biggest stumbling blocks for most students, the encouragement of learning through audio-visual material (films, songs etc.) should be encouraged, to increase levels of comprehension.
Specialised teacher training
Although the number of bilingual schools has increased in recent years, the number of truly bilingual teachers is currently insufficient to meet the demand. Therefore, an investment should be made in encouraging teachers to complete courses in English-speaking countries, which ensures that they will obtain the sufficient level of fluency required to elicit the same from their students.
The solution to the Spanish crisis may lie in the distant future, yet there seems little reason to wait so long for the adoption of new methodologies when it comes to learning foreign languages at school. Recent budget cuts to the Department of Education, however, have seen the country take a turn for the worse in so far as public schools teachers’ salaries and University costs are concerned, leading us to wonder if the government is willing to back the admitted need for improved language learning, with the necessary funding. Investment in education is always wise, but it is no less than crucial in times of crisis.
A quick quiz question for you: what language is spoken in France?
Like many other European countries, the French once spoke a wide range of regional languages and dialects. However, during the Third Republic, the French government made French the only official language, and outlawed use of regional languages such as Breton and Occitan in schools and institutions. The underlying idea of creating national and linguistic unity may have been well-intentioned, but as a result, most of these regional languages are now endangered.
Nowadays, Occitan is spoken by around 1.33% of the population (in the Occitania region in Southern France), whilst Breton is spoken in Brittany by around 0.61% of the population. These languages are recognised by the government, but not considered official languages, and therefore given minimal support and opportunity for use.
The situation is a little more encouraging in Spain, where Basque, Catalan, Valencian and Galician are recognised as co-official regional languages, and a thriving community of native speakers exists in each of these regions.
This rather cool map shows how the areas over which each of these languages is/was spoken has changed over the last 1,000 years.
Over time, due to globalisation, mass media and government drives for national unity, the national languages in Spain, France and many other countries have established dominance and pushed smaller regional languages onto the sidelines. However, there are still communities of native speakers of each of these languages, and many people are passionate about passing on the language and culture of their region to the next generation.
Regional languages are often closely tied to the culture and identity of a region: the Catalonians I know are proud Catalan speakers, and often much of an area’s history, literature, music and so on is written in the regional language. These languages may be small, but they are certainly worth learning and preserving!
In fact, we have produced our Maths, age 3-5 and 4-6 apps in both Basque and Catalan, and uTalk is currently available in Galician, Basque and Catalan. And for anyone interested in regional French languages, why not learn a few phrases for free in Occitan, Breton, Alsatian or Provencal?
Here at EuroTalk we love discovering interesting facts about the world around us, so from now on, on the third Wednesday of each month (or thereabouts!) we’ll be sharing some of these with you. The theme for this month is colours…
Be a man: be yellow
If you call someone ‘yellow’ in England, you’re calling them a coward. In Japan, the opposite is true; yellow is the colour of courage, and while Westerners usually see pink as a feminine colour, in Japan it’s very masculine; it conjures up the memory of fallen samurai.
In China, writing someone’s name in red is unlucky and it usually means you want to cut them out of your life; just make sure you don’t have red ink on your hands if something bad happens to them!
Feeling blue? You’ll regret it in the morning…
White: it’s the new black
Weddings in the West are all decked out in white, but the same is not true of China, where white is the colour of mourning. Instead, brides wear red, as the colour symbolises good luck.
In many cultures, a black cat is seen as lucky: in Japan, it’s believed to attract suitors, and in Scotland a cat arriving at your home is a sign of prosperity coming your way. But in America, the same animal is considered bad luck, particularly by gamblers on their way to the casino.
Useful information if you find yourself in a fight in Europe… In English, the result might be known as a ‘black eye’, whereas in Germany it’s blue (‘blaues Auge’), in Spain it’s purple (‘ojo morado’) and in France it’s known as an ‘oeil au beurre noir’ (literally ‘eye in black butter’)!
If anyone has any other examples of colour-related facts, we’d love to hear them!
Valentine’s Day is here again, and like a lot of people, I’m a bit fed up with it. I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve received over the last few weeks, inviting me to use Valentine’s as an excuse to buy everything from chocolates to an iPad – I even got one suggesting I should hire a private jet (yes, really) to surprise my loved one.
Here in the UK, Valentine’s Day is very much a day for couples, and has become known as a very commercial holiday. The usual traditions are cards (sometimes anonymous), flowers, chocolates and candle-lit dinners. But not all countries celebrate in the same way (or even on the same day). Here are a few alternatives:
If you thought celebrating Valentine’s once a year was enough, think again. In Japan February 14th is just the start, when women give chocolate to the men in their life. This doesn’t have to be just boyfriends and husbands but can also include co-workers and friends. Then on March 14th, which is known as ‘White Day’, the men give the ladies a gift of greater value (sounds good to me!). Going one step further, in South Korea, the 14th of every month is a love-related day of some kind. On April 14th, anyone who didn’t get a gift in February or March is expected to go out and eat black noodles in recognition of their single status.
In some areas of Latin America, Valentine’s is known as ‘Dia del Amor y la Amistad’ (Day of Love and Friendship). It’s celebrated with ‘Amigo secreto’ (Secret friend), which is similar to the Secret Santa tradition at Christmas and involves buying a gift for a friend selected at random.
In Catalonia, Spain, loved ones exchange gifts on Valentine’s Day and also on 23rd April, which has become known as ‘El Dia del Llibre’ (Day of the Book) because it’s the day that both Miguel Cervantes and William Shakespeare died (in 1616). Women traditionally give men books as gifts, while the men reciprocate with either a book or a rose. Bookshops and cafes hold book-signings and public readings to celebrate the day.
Finland celebrates ‘Ystävänpäivä’, which means ‘Friend’s Day’. Although it is becoming an increasingly popular day on which to get engaged, the main focus of the day in Finland is to celebrate friendship of all kinds, and presents are exchanged between friends as well as lovers.
And finally, France. A (now banned) custom used to be held, known as the ‘loterie d’amour’. Single men and women would enter houses facing each other and call to one another until they were all paired off. Afterwards, any women who were left single would build a huge bonfire and burn images of men who had hurt them, whilst screaming abuse at them. Eventually the ‘loterie’ was banned by the French government. I wonder why.
So, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone, wherever you are and whether or not you’re part of a couple – we all have special people in our lives, so let’s celebrate them 🙂 Will you be doing anything special or unusual to celebrate? Let us know!