I am not even fluent in my native tongue, which is something I am not proud of at all. My only redemption is that I can understand what is being said (if it's not 'too deep and complicated'), shame I can't seem to put my tongue around the words correctly hence my pronunciation is terrible. So I will reply in either local Sabah speak, English, or Malay, depending on whom I am talking to. I need to practice, I know.
Certainly it's a good thing to know a few local words and phrases when travelling to countries where English is not widely used. My globe-trotting friend 'Ms Fabregas' just came back from her solo tour around Europe, and wrote that when she was in Madrid it was frustrating because the locals didn't speak English.
Is it better to take a phrase book with you when travelling? I am undecided on this. At this moment I also don't even own any travel guides - no LP, no Rough Guides etc. I just seem unable to bring myself to buy one, though I flip through some every time I am in a bookstore. I usually do online research and reading and jot down important information and other interesting stuff in a small notebook. Also because books add to the weight of your luggage. So maybe I'll just stick to writing down things for now.
I have not travelled to really far flung places yet where English is of little or no use at all. Wonder how that feels like; to be immersed in totally foreign surroundings and verbal communication is impossible. I imagine a situation I call the 'chicken-duck talk', which probably will sound/look hilarious to a bystander. At the same time, it should be exciting and challenging - up to the point where it becomes so frustrating and you don't know whether to laugh or to cry.
Maybe sign language will work better.
That's where your Charades skills come in handy.