Lonely Planet Writer

How to break the ice when you're travelling

It’s International Mother Language Day today, and it got us to thinking of the importance of talk and travel – you want to meet the locals, get in the swim, but how do you take that first step? What ice-breaker can you whip out that will have you coming off as utterly charming and not sleazy or witless?

Some travellers find reading a local guidebook or writing in a diary in a hostel bar is a great way to let the mountain come to Mohammed - people approach you to share travel tips and opinions. (I always thought writing in places was meant to give you that anguished allure of the pained writer who couldn't possibly talk to regular people...), while the old 'clutch a map and look around lost' trick works a treat - except when five people give you five conflicting directions to the same place. Then you are even further back than square one.

If you really want to get somewhere and break the ice, you've got to be the one wielding the pick. Learn your basic greetings in advance – hello/goodbye/thank you/good night – plus a few jaunty social words like 'cheers' and 'delicious', so even though conversation might be going over your head, you can at least compliment your host or toast your brand new drinking buddy. Learn some basic questions - and their expected answers - so you can nudge into two-way conversation territory instead of manic-nodding-with-terrified-smile territory. Hitting the shops and stepping into the bartering fray is a great fun way of interacting (and practising numbers in the local language).

If you're really stuck for words (so Icelandic has never been your strong suit) you can always use a 'point' book - a little book of pictures of food, hotels, taxis etc that you can literally just point to - or you may have to resort to travel's unofficial international sign language. Luckily the old drink-tilting charade paired with a friendly, questioning brow is fairly well-understood as the offer of a drink.

People love having a good ol' chat about themselves, so talking to people about their pets or their kids is a good kick-off (as long as they're with them as actual evidence - randomly barking 'Got any kids?!' might not gas up the conversation.)

But in the realm of talk and travel, the bottom line seems to be that people love being asked as experts on their home town. Questions like where to get the best coffee, the best noodles, the best bargains will break the ice, grind it up and turn it into a refreshing granita for you to sip on while you bask in your new-found conversational cool.

Make a start with our range of phrasebooks or download yourself a free phrase sheet in a selection of languages.