Gratitude: found in translation

Gratitude: found in translation

Saying “cảm ơn” for the candies in Saigon.

You parents know what hard work it is to teach the language of courtesy to your kids. Please and thank you don’t come naturally to small children, and if I had a dollar for every time I had to prompt one of mine with “what do you say, Sweetie?” I’d be a millionaire by now. And that’s just in English — I also taught my two little darlings to be gracious in 13 other languages.

Am I a sucker for punishment, or what? 🙂

I always insisted on learning at least four crucial phrases in the language of the countries we visited: hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. These are the power words: expressions that convey respect and politeness. I never wanted my children to think the onus was on others to understand them, just because their native tongue happens to be a global behemoth.

I don’t speak 13 other languages, of course. But I was able to find audio files or phonetic pronunciations online. Only twice did my rule get broken: during a day trip in Northern Thailand that extended into Laos when I wasn’t quite expecting it, and during a layover at Narita airport on our first flight to Singapore. (I’d been so focused on the logistics of the move that it hadn’t occurred to me to prepare for the Japanese stopover. Many airport employees in major cities speak English, of course, but that would be cheating! Good thing I remembered the bad 80’s music of my youth — thanks to the lyrical stylings of Styx, we were able to say a convincing arigatō at the duty-free shop.)

I found that people all over the world are deeply touched when they encounter a foreigner who makes the effort to communicate with them in their mother tongue. It’s the courteous thing to do, and the goodwill generated by this small act is considerable, especially if the speaker is a child. Because she was so young (and blonde, which goes a long way in Asia), Younger Daughter seemed to enchant the locals everywhere we went.

Thank you in many languagesWhen she said köszönöm to the young Hungarian gent who served us a wonderful dinner, or matur suksema to the Balinese shopkeeper who tucked a flower behind her ear, or or xie xie, ni tai hao le to the grinning waiter who brought us a bowl of peanuts at the Great Wall, their delighted reaction was well worth the small amount of work involved. These were my daughters’ first lessons in intercultural communication, and their effects have lingered to this day.

They’re moody teenagers now, and sometimes when they’re being particularly ungrateful for all the things their sainted mother does for them, I remember with a pang how easily they gave thanks in unfamiliar languages when they were small. Patience is a virtue, though (especially when dealing with teens) and eventually, my well-mannered darlings always return. Dieu merci.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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14 Responses to Gratitude: found in translation

  1. Janet Daghri says:

    Your focus on politeness in any language hits home to me. I also find it important to teach this to my children (who are growing up so fast and still need to be reminded sometimes!). We are now in Denmark and I have found it culturally difficult (language and for other reasons too) because there isn’t a Danish word for please. There are ways that you can say some phrases that make it sound more polite but there isn’t a single word that means please. I find it odd and that says something about the culture here. On the other hand, everyone speaks English so it’s easy to keep up the niceties though it makes it less urgent to learn Danish!

    • Maria says:

      I didn’t know that about Danish. It must be hard to wrap your head around the absence of “please.” In Mandarin there’s no word for “yes” or “no,” and I’ve always found that awkward.

  2. Judy says:

    Well done for you and your kids! I remember our first day in Azerbaijan asking someone in my husband’s new office to teach me those “power” words. Unfortunately the Russian word for hello, здравствуйте, is probably one of the hardest words to pronounce (zdravstvuĭte) with 3 consonants all rolled together at the beginning of the word. If you can master that successfully, the rest of the language is a snap! 😉

  3. Living in New York, I never knew when I would encounter a foreigner, so I also leaned the hello, goodbye, please and thank you in the basic languages (even hello in Hopi Native American–Ya-hay). It really does make a difference (especially to people who were expats) and I usually would get a smile.
    Great post!

  4. Absolutely dead on. The good will engendered by simple effort to build a bridge while also being polite is limitless. Certainly worth the effort. Good for you, and good for your girls!

    • Maria says:

      I sometimes fear politeness is an endangered species. There certainly seems to be much less of it these days. We’ve got to fight the good fight and keep it from dying altogether!

  5. amblerangel says:

    I couldn’t agree more- right on!

  6. Sine says:

    Wow, what inspiration. Will have to get to work with my kids to do this as well. While we’re on it: In Zulu, there is no word for “please” either. There is also no “thank you”. Instead, you say “I praise” – Ngiyabonga. For “hello”, you say “I see you” – Sawubona.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for this — if my family ever visits South Africa, we’ll be ahead of our usual learning curve. Two power words down, two to go!

  7. Kudos for you to teach your kids these magic words in all these languages. It is true, people are so impressed and delighted when you make the effort. When we lived in Palestine, my husband and I and our younger daughter visited Cairo and ended up in a taxi with a driver who was over the moon excited about the fact that the day after his first baby was going to be born (C section). My daughter congratulated him in Arabic, in the proper way (whatever that was) and he was so impressed and delighted he hardly was looking at the traffic anymore and I feared for our lives. He then wanted to know her name and said that if the baby was a girl, he was going to name her after out daughter. It was all rather funny, and a bit dangerous, because the guy seemed high as a kite and my daughter congratulating him in Arabic didn’t help 😉

  8. Unfortunately, no matter where you go “patience” and “teenager” are two words that just don’t mix. That’s amazing that you’ve taught them to say it in so many languages, because graciousness is not something that is restricted to one culture. It kind of makes you take a step back and remember to always say it in your own language, too.

    • Maria says:

      Yes, the Terrible Teens can suck that last drop of patience right out of us. Some of the words I use with my kids these days definitely don’t appear on any “power list”! But even though we no longer remember many of the polite words we learned in those languages, I’m hoping the underlying message of graciousness will stick with them forever.

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