Theoretically, there could be an international language for help. There may even be one beyond body language that clearly conveys urgency. It is not necessarily English or even English based. A knowledge of this will assist you in any urgent situation, whether it be requiring help on the street of a foreign land or just passing the first hurdle of your fluency test in the classroom.
Sometimes it is a numbers game, and sometimes it has to do strictly with the part of the world in which you happen to be. There is no doubting the pervasive influence of the French language. Some of the most prolific colonialists, the French spread their language wherever they went. Some common phrases for help in French would be:
- Medical help/SAMU: 15. (dialing fifteen if you happen to be in France)
“J’ai besoin d’aide médicale.” – I need medical help
- Fire and accidents/Pompiers: 18. (dialing 18 if you happen to be in France)
“Aidez-moi! Il y a un feu.” – Help me! There is a fire.
- “Je m’appelle…” — My name is ….
- “J’ai eu un accident” — I had an accident.
- “Je besoin d’un médecin” — I need a doctor.
- “Je besoin d’une ambulance” — I need an ambulance.
- “Je ne peux pas respirer” — I can’t breathe.
Beyond the obvious that you may be in Paris or Brussels is the fact that many places in Africa have French as a primary or secondary language. Therefore, at least knowing these phrases when traveling to either continent could prove to be quite useful.
Happily, or unhappily, as you may perceive it, there is one word that translates very well from English to French to Spanish. This is “accident (English)” French is merely a crepe’s distance away (“Il y a un accident,” — There is an accident) and Spanish not more than a tortilla’s distance (“Hay un accidente,” –There is an accident). While “help” is probably pretty vague and could, in theory, communicate a small emergency (lost contact lens) to a big one (lost child) at least saying that something unexpectedly bad has happened can get the other person to call the fire department, police or rescue team.
Another important fact about emergencies and asking for help is that it is immensely helpful to be prepared. You can react in a calm, determined manner because you know exactly how you would respond. Unless you have been sidetracked on a trip to an unexpected destination where you have no knowledge of the language or culture, you can make some common sense preparation steps a habit just as predictable as packing your suitcase.
First, understand the culture you are presumably immersing yourself into. You will want to understand if the locals make eye contact or are genuinely xenophobic in some way. You will want to understand if it is proper to approach women walking alone or what particular gender rules apply. Older men, especially shop keepers or service personnel, tend to be a pretty safe bet. Groups of younger men, probably no matter where you travel, tend not to be. However, during times of emergency beggars can’t be choosers and you will just have to enter the situation thinking of what to do if this encounter goes terribly wrong or they start to take advantage of your confusion. Don’t be too proud to run and hide if the situation demands it. A quick decision in an emergency is often better than none at all. Above all, put yourself in their shoes and imagine if a foreigner approached you in your neighborhood asking for help. The person that can most help will indeed likely be a local, although a fellow tourist may not add to the chaos if they have a reasonable amount of fluency in the local language.
Second, keep key phrases on your person wherever you go. It doesn’t have to be that fashionable fanny pack. During this age of smartphones, it is tempting to think that you have all the phrases you need at your fingertips. I was staying in Paris for several days and my travel companion decided that Google translate or another application was all she needed. She was correct, to a degree. The problem was that she expected to just tap in the phrase and hold the phone up for the waiter or other people to hear. This was generally met with confusion and hesitation, even though it was perfectly clear to the other person what she was attempting to do. There will never be a substitute, beyond humanlike androids with remarkable facial expression technology, to personal interactions with people. Connections promote comfort which most definitely promotes efficient and effective communication.
Third, keep a small piece of paper with information about your hotel, embassy, medications, and allergies on your person at all times. Again, smartphone batteries die and if you are incapacitated, smartphones could easily get stolen. If all else fails at least you can hand over to a willing local some information that can help them get you emergency assistance. Be sure that your writing is clear if you happen to need to use a pen and paper instead of typing it out. If you are lucky enough to have a concierge or tour guide it is likely that they will be more than happy to help you. If they brush off your concern saying, “you’ll be with us the whole time,” it betrays a distinct lack of experience or a fair amount of overconfidence. The more foreign the culture or remote the region the more you should insist on doing this.
Fourth, be direct yet courteous. Time is of the essence, and if that person is reluctant to help you for whatever reason at least you will know immediately and can move on to the next person. The most obvious phrase to know and practice from your aforementioned piece of old-fashioned paper is, “Do you speak English?” in the local language. It doesn’t get any more direct than that. I am an experienced language learner and I have used that phrase far more than I care to mention. The nice thing about people is if you convey genuine distress, the fact is that the vast majority will move heaven and earth to help you.
Travel safe and travel as fluent as you can. Preparation, in this case, is your friend and you may immeasurably benefit from just five to seven minutes of forethought (or French).