We bought an Italian phrase book a few weeks before travelling to Lake Como. You know how it is. You swear you’ll learn some of the language in the few weeks before the holiday. But of course you don’t. So you end up trying to refer to it when you’re there. And that’s when you get yourself into trouble.
You see, those books are written for a simplified world, in which you only have to ask one question or make one statement and the other person gives you exact]y what you want – say, a railway ticket, or a meal. The problem is, things don’t work like that in reality. For example, if you ask for something in the delicatessen and you get an answer that doesn’t include serving you and taking your money, it could be: ‘We’re not open for another thirty minutes’, or: ‘Are you sure it’s seven kilos of tiramisu you want?’ You won’t know which, will you, because you won’t understand a word of it. And it’s no use looking in the phrase book again. It’s moved on to ‘how to order a coffee’ by now. It’s not responsible for people who don’t stick to the script.
Phrase books are linguistic Sirens, luring those who are enchanted by the music of foreign languages onto the rocks of real conversations. This is not to say we shouldn’t learn other languages. That’s a different matter altogether. What we should avoid is not learning other languages but thinking that a phrase book is a good alternative.
I would rather use a small pocket dictionary, if anything, because it’s easier to look for the Italian equivalent of a specific English word and it tells the person you’re talking to that you know no Italian but have at least made the effort to find the right key word for the transaction.
It doesn’t promise more than it can deliver and unless you’re quite unlucky you’ll be able to get what you want with a combination of signs and diagrams. You might also receive help from someone in the queue who knows both languages and is willing to assist, if only to get the queue moving again.