Eddie sez:

It is said that English is the language of international aviation and I suppose that is true. The problem is that not every place you fly to knows that. Even if they do, sometimes their version of English is different than yours. Before you venture beyond your own borders you need to make sure you can communicate at your destination. Here are a few things to consider and a technique or two:

  1. Know what to expect
  2. Consider bringing or hiring a translator
  3. Ask for (or pay for) translation services from the local handler or hotel
  4. Bring a Babel Fish
  5. Arm yourself with local material
  6. Bring an electronic translator
  7. Learn how to count and how not to offend

About 20 years ago I had a "Babel Fish Decode Book" that contained 13 phrases in English that I had translated into 13 other languages. It was enough to get by. But I lost it and have only recreated it in the languages shown below.

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Photo: Burmese language textbook (Credit: fyunkie/Creative Commons)
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Be flexible and keep your sense of humor. No matter what you do, it won't be perfect. Have you heard the story of President Kennedy going to the Berlin wall and saying to a large crowd, "We are all jelly donuts," supposedly to the horror of the locals as reported by the American press corps? As it turns out, what Kennedy said, "Ich bin ein Berliner" does indeed mean "I am a Berliner" to those in Berlin and Eastern Germany. In those regions, a donut is a “pfannkuchen” whereas a “berliner” is a donut in North, West, and Southwest Germany. “Ich bin Berliner” is what a local who is actually a resident of Berlin would say, but to be figurative, German grammar requires the “ein” be used, as Kennedy correctly did.

Lead story:

2021-10-15

Last revision:

2021-10-15


Know What To Expect

We can become complacent when traveling overseas, especially if we've had great success before. If you haven't been to the location before, you should find someone who has been there recently. In most parts of the world Air Traffic Controllers speak English, but the accent may be so heavy you will not be able to understand. Even if the controller is understandable, they will often switch to the local language when speaking to other aircraft; your situational awareness may be diminished as a result.

If you are staying near a major city with frequent visitors and businesspeople from English speaking countries, it will be easier to find cab drivers and people in hotels and restaurants who will lend a sympathetic ear. But the farther from these tourist spots you venture, the more likely you are to find yourself incommunicado. Fortunately, there are countermeasures to this, though the most effective solution will not be without cost.

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Photo: A jeepney from the Philippines (Credit: Jorge Lascar)
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Consider Bringing or Hiring a Translator

I flew U.S. diplomatic missions as an Air Force pilot in a former life and when traveling to a location where a language barrier was known to exist, we had a member of the U.S. embassy greet us and provide translation services. In extreme cases, we would have the translator meet us prior to departure, just in case we needed them when talking to air traffic control. Having a person available who knows the language and the customs is obviously convenient. Sometimes it is a luxury, but sometimes it is a necessity.

Now, as a civilian, my international travels are in support of either business or leisure. For business trips, the passengers should anticipate the same challenges and may have brought someone conversant in the local language. In those cases, I liked to ask the person for a few phrases that I know I will be needing, but more on that later. I would also ask for their cell phone number, just in case. For leisure trips, chances are the passengers will want to go someplace where other tourists are, and English may be common. If not, we will explore our options for the tourist spots and look for local allies.

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Photo: Language icon (Credit: marcmiquel
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Use the Local Handler or Hotel Concierge

There is a debate among business jet pilots if and when to pay for a local handler to ensure everything goes smoothly during your visit. “Why pay for what you can do for yourself?” Or, “it pays to have someone with a vested interest in your success.” I belong to the former camp, even for locations I know well. I like knowing that help is only a phone call away.

If you are a frequent visitor and use the same handler each time, it can be to your benefit to "tip heavy" on arrival and ask if you can call now and then for help. I was once presented with the last-minute task of procuring the finest Parisian pastries and ensuring they got to the aircraft within minutes of departure, free from any extra handling sure to happen once they showed up on the conveyor belt at customs. Our handler called in a few favors and the pastries left the baker’s van under the watchful eye of a customs officer as they were brought directly to our aircraft.

You can also find a translation ally at the hotel concierge. In some countries the hotel desk is eager to please, in others a heavy tip can improve their willingness to come to your rescue in the future. Put their phone number in your cell phone contacts list. A quick phone call can solve your problems by asking "how do you say?" or "please talk to this person and ask for me" and then handing the phone over. But no matter how much on-call assistance you have, knowing a few key phrases can make your life much easier.

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Photo: A hotel concierge in Rome, Italy (Credit: Jorge Royan)
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Babel Fish

Babel comes from The Bible (Genesis 11:1-9) and is supposed to be why we on earth speak so many languages. Having a Babel Fish solves that. . .

In Douglas Adams' book, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, space travelers could put a babel fish in their ears as a universal translator. The babel fish, it seemed, digest language of any kind and out the other end came language the person in whose ear he (or she) was placed, could understand. How nice. I don't know of any babel fish available on earth, so we are stuck with other methods. One thing I've done is to come up with commonly needed phrases when venturing to airports in other countries and writing down the translation. Here are a few:

If you are fluent in any other languages and would like to offer your own versions, please send them along!

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Photo: The Babel Fish, by John (Viet Triet) Nguyen
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Babel Fish (French)

Note: These have been edited by a French speaker.

Download: French Babel Fish

English French
Do you speak English? parlez vous anglais?
Please send a fuel truck Envoyez-nous un camion de carburant s'il vous plaît.
This much fuel in liters Cette quantité de carburant en litres.
We are ready for passengers Nous sommes prêts pour les passagers.
We are ready for baggage Nous sommes prêts pour les bagages.
We are ready for ground transportation Nous sommes prêts pour le transport routier.
Do you need our passports? Avez-vous besoin de nos passeports?
Please take us to the airport Emmenez-nous à l'aéroport ________ s'il vous plaît.
Please take us to the hotel _____ Emmenez-nous à l'hôtel _______ s'il vous plaît.
Please take us to the restaurant _____ Emmenez-nous au restaurant _______ s'il vous plaît.
Menu, please Le menu, s'il vous plaît.
Check, please For one check: La facture, s'il vous plaît.
For separate checks: Une facture pour la table / Factures séparées.
Please send a taxi Appelez-nous un taxi s'il vous plaît.
Where is a cash machine? S'il vous plaît, dites-moi où est le distributeur de billets / guichet automatique.

Babel Fish (German)

Note: These have been edited by a German speaker.

Download: German Babel Fish

English German
Do you speak English? Sprechen Sie Englisch?
Please send a fuel truck Bitte schicken Sie einen Tankwagen
This much fuel in liters So viel Sprit in Litern
We are ready for passengers Wir sind bereit für passagiere
We are ready for baggage Wir sind bereit für Gepäck
We are ready for ground transportation Wir sind bereit für den Bodentransport
Do you need our passports? Benötigen Sie unsere Pässe?
Please take us to the airport Bitte bringen Sie uns zum Flughafen
Please take us to the hotel _____ Bitte bringen Sie uns zum Hotel _____
Please take us to the restaurant _____ Bitte bringen Sie uns ins Restaurant _____
Menu, please Die Speisekarte, bitte
Check, please Die Rechnung, bitte
Please send a taxi Bitte schicken Sie ein Taxi
Where is a cash machine? Wo ist ein Geldautomat?

Babel Fish (Italian)

Note: These have been edited by an Italian speaker.

Download: Italian Babel Fish

English Italian
Do you speak English? Formal: Parla inglese?
Informal: Parli inglese?
Please send a fuel truck Per favore mi manda la botte del rifornimento
This much fuel in liters Ho bisogno di _____ litri/libbre/chili pron. Kili(Kg) di carburante
We are ready for passengers Siamo pronti per i passeggeri
We are ready for baggage Siamo pronti per i bagagli
We are ready for ground transportation Siamo pronti per il pulmino
Do you need our passports? ti servono i nostri passaporti?
Please take us to the airport Per favore ci porti all’aeroporto
Please take us to the hotel _____ Per favore ci porti hotel _____
Please take us to the restaurant _____ Per favore ci porti ristorante _____
Menu, please Il menu, per favore
Check, please Ci porta il conto per favore?
Please send a taxi Ci può chiamare un taxi per favore?
Where is a cash machine? dov'è un bancomat?

Babel Fish (Japanese)

Note: These have been edited by a Japanese speaker. The phonetics are called "Romaji" and should give you a starting place for pronunciation, but it may be better to point to the characters, which are called "Kanji."

Download: Japanese Babel Fish

English Japanese
Do you speak English? Eigo o hanasemasu ka
英語話せますか?
Please send a fuel truck Nenryō torakku o yonde kudasai
燃料トラックを呼んでください。
This much fuel in liters Kore dake no nenryō rittoru de
これだけの燃料リトルで
We are ready for passengers nimotsu no junbi ga dekimashita
荷物の準備ができました。
We are ready for baggage nimotsu no junbi ga dekimashita
荷物の準備ができました。
We are ready for ground transportation Rikujō yusō no junbi ga dekimashita
陸上輸送の準備ができました。
Do you need our passports? Pasupōto ga hitsuyōdesu ka?
パスポートは必要ですか?
Please take us to the airport Kūkō made o onegaishimasu
空港までをお願いします。
Please take us to the hotel _____ _____ Hoteru made o onegaishimasu
___ ホテルまでをお願いします。
Please take us to the restaurant _____ _____ Resutoran made o onegaishimasu
___ レストランまでをお願いします。
Menu, please Menyū o onegaishimasu
メニューをお願いします。
Check, please O kaikei onegaishimasu
お会計をお願いします。
Please send a taxi Takushī o yonde kudasai
タクシーを呼んでください。
Where is a cash machine? ATM wa doko desu ka?
ATMはどこですか?

Babel Fish (Spanish)

Note: These have been edited by a Spanish speaker.

Download: Spanish Babel Fish

English Spanish
Do you speak English? ¿Hablas inglés?
Please send a fuel truck por favor envíe un camión de combustible
_____ fuel in liters _____ litros de combustible
We are ready for passengers If you are male: estamos listos para los pasajeros
If you are female: estamos listas para las pasajeros
We are ready for baggage If you are male: estamos listos para el equipaje
If you are female: estamos listas para el equipaje
We are ready for ground transportation If you are male: estamos listos para el transporte Terrestre
If you are female: estamos listas para el transporte terrestre
Do you need our passports? ¿Necesitas nuestros pasaportes?
Please take us to the airport por favor llévanos al aeropuerto
Please take us to the hotel _____ por favor llévanos al hotel _____
Please take us to the restaurant _____ por favor llévanos al restaurante _____
Menu, please El menú, por favor
Check, please La cuenta, por favor
Please send a taxi por favor envía un taxi
Where is a cash machine? ¿donde hay un cajero automático?

Arm Yourself With Local Material

Many hotels will have simplified maps of the local area. Ask for one and have them mark the location of the hotel and any locations you would like to visit. This can be a great help with your cab drivers.

Don't leave the FBO, your hotel, or other destinations without a business card, matchbook, or other items that show where you've been and where you want to go. You can communicate your destination to a non-English speaking cab driver by handing over the card and pointing.

Electronic Translator

If you have good local area cell phone service, there are phone applications that can translate with reasonable success. They can translate menus, listen to locals speak, and even speak for you. And some of these applications are free. Warning: these applications are far from perfect and the nuance of the English language makes some of the translations suspect. I treat these as a last resort. You are far better off asking someone fluent in both languages for advice.

Google Translate: The Internet Version

Google Translate allows you to type in your phrase in your language and see the translation so you can attempt to speak it, or with a click of a button have it speak for you.

Google Translate: The Phone App

It really pays to download the Google Translate App ahead of time. It is free. With it, you can have a foreign language speaker talk into your phone and it will listen and translate for you. You can also point it at written text. Keep in mind your cell phone may not work in the country you are visiting. Here is a short video of it in action, translating a French menu:

Learn How to Count and How Not to Offend

Counting on your fingers

If the person greeting you at a restaurant asks, "How many?" and you are with another person, how do you indicate need a table for two? In the United States, you raise two fingers, your index finger and middle finger, usually with your palm facing you and the back of the hand facing the person you are talking to.

For an older person in England, that hand gesture can be offensive and the correct way would be with the palm of the hand away from you. In most of Europe, the number two is indicated with the thumb and the index finger. In Japan, it is the same as the U.S. when indicating the number to others, but with three fingers extended and the thumb and the index finger retracted when counting to yourself to show others the act of counting. Confused? If you remember the U.S. method and the European method you should be okay for most of the world. (But don't be surprised if the person you are communicating with doesn't understand.)

Hand gestures to avoid

Pointing with your index finger

It is rude to point with your index finger in some cultures, such as Malaysia. The alternative is to point with your thumb or with two fingers.

Beckoning with your index finger

Using your hand with your palm facing you and moving your fingers back and forth is considered a way to say "come here" in some countries. At best, it is considered rude and demeaning in others. At worst, it is only used to summon dogs in the Philippines. It is never good.

The middle finger

Raising only the middle finger with the rest retracted is profane in the United States.

Thumbs up

Giving someone a thumbs up in Iran, Afghanistan, and few surrounding countries is the same as giving them the middle finger in the United States.

Making a circle with your index finger and thumb, other three fingers extended

While some cultures look upon the circle formed by the index finger and thumb as the letter "O" and the three extended fingers as the letter "K" to mean everything is okay, other cultures view this as flashing a body part which is considered offensive.

Raising two fingers with palms toward you

It can be asking for a fight in some parts of England to issue a "backwards peace sign," you should face the palm away from you.

Raising the index finger and the pinkie finger with the middle two and thumb retracted

This hand gesture with palms away is often used to support sports teams, such as The Bulls, by mimicking the horns of a bull. But in Italy, Spain, and some other cultures, it is a sign that accuses a man of being a bull that has been castrated. Not good!

The left hand

In parts of India and the Middle East, using your left hand for eating, passing money, or picking things up can be seen as "unclean."

Tipping

In the United States

In the U.S. it is customary to add 15% to a restaurant bill for acceptable service, and higher amounts for exceptional service. Leaving a very small tip, such as rounding up to the nearest dollar, can be seen as worse than no tip at all.

In Europe

Tipping in Europe is a complicated subject because the rules have changed in some countries and the guidance you get in a tour guide that is more than a few years old may not be correct. The old custom of simply rounding up your bill to the next even amount is still a good bet in some countries, but frowned upon in others. Your best bet is to ask someone used to dealing with this question, such as your airport handler or the hotel concierge.

At a restaurant in Germany, for example, you typically add about 3 to 5 percent and round up to the next full Euro amount. But you shouldn't leave the tip on the talbe, you should present it to your waiter personally. In France the bill will usually include "service commpris," in which case a 15 percent tip has been included and it would be okay to leave some small change. If "service non compris," it would be expected to leave a 15 percent tip.

In Japan

In Japan, exceptional service is expected and leaving any tip at all is seen as demeaning.

Taxi etiquette

While in most of the world the taxi driver expects you to get in the back seat, in a few countries it is a sign that you believe you are better than the cab driver and is seen as a sign of egalitarianism. If the seat next to the cab driver is open in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, or Scotland, take it.

Americanism

If you are from the United States of America, do not call yourself an "American" or refer to your country as "America" when you are in South America. Likewise, if you are from the Continental United States and are visiting Hawaii, don't say, "Back in the States."

Blowing your nose

If you must blow your nose in China, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, excuse yourself and do so in the restroom or away from the public. It is seen a rude to do so in public.

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Photo: One through five in the U.S., the U.K. and much of the non-European world
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Photo: One through five in much of European
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The International Language of Currency

In some places of the world the person you are trying to communicate with may feign an inability to understand that may magically disappear when handed some “folding money.” The amount varies by location and demand. I was once at an Olympics parked in a sea of Gulfstream business jets. Getting a fuel truck was next to impossible until I produced five twenty-dollar bills. The aircraft owner thought it was highway robbery. I told him it was a cost of doing business. You cannot let a few international “entrepreneurs” dim your view of the world or impact the way you behave.

We often think of the 1959 novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, “The Ugly American,” as a critique on unthinking U.S. tourists, looking down their noses on the lesser peoples of the world. In fact, it was a critique on members of the U.S. government traveling abroad, particularly the diplomatic corps. These government officials were unwilling to learn the local language or adapt to local customs. They were indeed ugly Americans. I think we in the aviation business have better reputations and that is due in part to the fact we recognize our success is dependent on everyone’s ability to communicate. English is the international language of aviation. But what we do encompasses more than just aviation.

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Photo: "Folding money"
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Letters from our readers

Eddie,

Nice article,

Which ever country you are headed for learn the local greetings, as a minimum: Buenos días/tardes/etc… Bonjour… здравствуйте… this should roll out of your mouth as the airplane door opens and spoken even to the person holding the chocks in his hands, it’s an excellent ice breaker and it will open numerous doors. Say THANK YOU, often.

Never discuss politics! Right wing, left wing, centrist, means different things around the world.

It used to be shaking hands was a must but COVID nixed that, although in France s’embrasser (kiss) has returned and so has shanking hands. In the UK they are back to shaking hands. The Dutch are back to normal as if COVID had never happened. Germany however remains somewhat strict.

If your listener appears to speak English avoid speaking Good O’l Boy.

English level 4 has a tendency to be confused with everyday fluency, far from it. I’ve had pilots in the sim that could easily follow vectors, clearances as well as instruction coaching but during breaks if the conversation strays from aviation related subjects you may loose the person. It is worst in class and you have to watch their eyes closely to see if they understand and you must often ask follow up questions to check their progress (although sometimes native English speakers will wander off but for other reasons).

FAA TCE examiners must determine the applicant’s level of English competency. There is an FAA guide to assist with this but you walk a thin line in making your evaluation. If you reject the applicant he/she will have to go before the FAA and “listen to the tapes” (ATC tapes of different phases of flight to be interpreted by the individual, they will not be asked to engage in a conversation regarding how best to cultivate their garden).

My native language is Spanish. I live in France and my wife is French and for the most part I have no trouble understanding others or making myself understood, and then some 16 year old French adolescent will rattle off a sentence and I understood “nothing”, then my wife will tell me, in French, what this young person said. So be ware of ‘street language’.

Five years living in Shanghai drove home the idea that in some cultures knowledge of basic greetings is a must. A large number of Chinese speak English and as a minimum they expect you to know how to say 你好 and 谢谢, if you know how to count to ten you almost got it made.

Great article on a subject that today most pilots, and people, take for granted.

Anonymous