I hate phrasebooks.
They're the ultimate in false advertising, like low-fat mayonnaise. I keep running across them in the travel sections of bookstores while looking for backpacker guides to whatever country I'm planning to invade. They're insidious - just the right size, light enough to slip into my pocket, filled with exotic words - and suddenly I find myself flipping through them. I read such useful phrases as "Could I have cheese instead of dessert?" and "I want to get off at the National Armory" and I think, this could really come in really handy. So I hand over the equivalent of two nights' lodging in Katmandu and walk away, secure in the knowledge that, although I may not actually speak the language, I now have a secret weapon that will get me through almost any linguistic crisis.
Eventually I clamber aboard a plane and some time later stagger off, grainy-eyed and slack-brained, wanting nothing more than a bath and a place to lay my head. I stumble over to the nearest guesthouse. The proprietor speaks no English. No problem. I whip out my phrasebook. The section under "Accommodation" has a number of entries, ranging from "Is there a conference room?" to "Where is the shaver socket?". What I really want is a single room and a private bath. All I can find is "Do you have a double room with a private balcony?". I carefully examine the foreign translation, wondering if I can use my pocket dictionary to substitute "bath" for "balcony" and perhaps even "single" for "double". Unfortunately I have no idea which word is which, and after several rounds of verbal gymnastics I realize that I am asking (rather shrilly) for a double balcony without a bath. By this time the proprietor is peering over my shoulder, reading along with me. His face fills with a joyous light - he has just what he thinks I'm looking for - and he grabs my pack and scurries off down the hall with my arm in tow. I end up sharing a double room with a hirsute Spaniard who spends half the night strumming Andalusian ballads on his broken-stringed guitar while I take a very public bath on the private balcony.
So I hate phrasebooks. But what alternatives are there? Leafing through a dictionary, piecing together sentences word by tedious word, only to discover that my conversational partners have wandered off to play hackeysack on the corner? Several months of pre-trip language instruction, with extra classes in all the local dialects?
One day, while wandering aimlessly through the backwoods of Vietnam on a twenty-five-year-old Honda, I started to make word lists. Just lists - no fancy phrasing or complicated etiquette. I had one for "Objects found in a hotel room" and another for "Useful words when repairing a motorcycle". Eventually, tired of searching through my pockets for just the right scrap of paper, I pasted them all into my journal, in categories like "Shopping - photography" and "Transportation - Bus". I tossed in a couple of pages of Really Useful words, like I-you-he-she and Who-what-when-where. Now when I wanted to find or buy or eat something, I could open my journal to the proper category and put together my own sentences. It was ungrammatical but no one seemed to mind. As a matter of fact, the locals seemed quite pleased, because they could use the same lists to ask questions of me. Suddenly, my dog-eared journal became a means, not just to make requests, but to really talk.
And talk I did - with flocks of giggling schoolgirls in their lovely white ao-dais; with butchers and bakers, and even a policeman or two. The book gathered huge crowds, as people for the first time discovered the means to communicate with a foreigner. Suddenly I had other tourists looking over my shoulder: grubby backpackers who sensed a solution to their linguistic dilemmas, if only they could get their hands on it.
...And then came the real surprise. Ratty Round-the-Worlders who would argue with a cyclo driver for an hour over a ten cent reduction in fare were happily forking out eight or nine dollars to photocopy my tattered lists.
As time went by, I added a few refinements. I put all the Really Useful words on two pages, and tacked them onto the front and back covers as fold-out flaps. That allowed me to open the book into a four page spread - the middle pages specific to a particular topic, bracketed by the universal words - and never again have to flip back and forth to make myself understood. I added subjects that no self-respecting phrasebook would carry, like "Animal Innards" and "Political Unrest". I put in a page of fill-in-the-blank sentences of the most commonly asked questions (you know, the Catechism: What is your name? Where are you from? Do you have children? How old are you? etc.) for those fifteen-hour bus rides when you're just too tired to take it from the top. I even left some free space for travelers with special vocabulary needs, like hang gliding off Kilimanjaro or birdwatching on the Limpopo.
And I used it. So did a whole bunch of other people. They weren't shy about telling me where my lists were falling short. I kept adding. A year and a half later, I'm still getting back dog-eared copies of those original Vietnamese lists with more words scribbled in the margins, followed by too many exclamation points. They all want to know if I have a copy in Urdu, or Kikuyu, or wherever else lies on their itinerary. I don't, but I have a pretty good version in Indonesian, which is where I'm going next. And if I play my words right, I'll never have to crack a phrasebook again