It can be a little intimidating heading to another country if you don’t fluently speak the language. I can’t tell you how many puzzled looks I gave while trying to decipher a train schedule or speak to a shopkeeper who only spoke in their native tongue. Language barriers can often deter someone from traveling to a foreign place altogether since learning a new language can be frustrating and time consuming, especially if you only plan to travel for a short time.
But the good new is, you don’t have to spend years studying another language in order to communicate. With English being the third most commonly spoken language in the world (second if you are only counting those who learn it as a second language) you would be surprised at how quickly you can usually find someone nearby to help you out.. In the event that you do find yourself in some of the more remote locations, here are 5 ways to overcome those language barriers, no matter where you are in the world.
1. Buy a picture dictionary (it doesn’t matter what language it’s in.) Having a visual reference to point and say “This, Please” can work much faster and easier than a game of charades or slaughtering words of a language you don’t know. I once used this tactic while dining out in Spain. I was with a man from Italy, who spoke no English (and of course I didn’t speak any Spanish or Italian) and we were in a Japanese restuarant! Of course, the handy pictures on the sushi menus came in handy when it was time to order, but we were able to overcome other language barriers by looking up pictures in my French visual dictionary.
2. Learn the 4 words that got you buy as a toddler; please, thank-you, hello, goodbye, and maybe add the phrase, “Do you speak English” in their language. It shows an interest in the culture, they will be surprised to hear it, and in my experience, much more willing to help you out. You can go to www.livemocha.com to join their language community, and learn the basics of any language for FREE, including access to native speakers.
You can also check out my language vocabulary page if you want to learn on a smaller scale (feel free to scroll up or down or look through the whole month if you want to.) While many people speak at least a little English, they are just as nervous at making mistakes, but seem to be more willing if you aren’t afraid to sound foolish yourself. Of course, remember to smile. It’s universal in almost any language.
3. Meet up with a local. Thanks to the internet, there are many resources available online to put you in touch with native speakers. I’ve already given you one, but you can also head to www.couchsurfing.org . Even if you aren’t planning on “surfing” yourself, you can always meet up with a local for a coffee, and many times they are happy to show you around their city for free. If they are a native of that country, then you have a friend who fluently speaks the language, and an interpreter can easily help you overcome some of those language barriers! You might be able to teach them something about your own culture.
4. See if they speak any other languages. Even though they might not speak English, they might know a little Spanish or one of the other romance languages, and you will find some of the root words to be similar or very close. My French, though not completely fluent, still got me by in many other countries when I was having trouble communicating with English. And remember that your accent can make a difference in how they understand the language. If they have trouble understanding it, try writing it down.
5. Worse case scenerio, get creative. Take along a sketch pad (could be handy if they are giving you directions to draw, or write it out on a map for you) and don’t be afraid to use sign language or pantomime, or even make sounds. It might seem a little embarrassing, but it will help you get your point across. If you still have trouble, try and locate a teenager or someone who appears to be from a younger generation. They should have at least some English skills fresh in their mind since many schools and universities have made English a required language.
Try not to get too frustrated and remember to have fun. Only 7% of communication is made up of the actual words we speak, which means there are plenty of ways to communicate, even if you aren’t a multi-linguist.
These are ideas that have helped me in my own travels but of course there are many others. What ways have you learned to get by in a country where you don’t speak the language? What is your favorite language learning trick or favorite website, or how have you been able to overcome language barriers? Don’t be shy! Let’s see what else we can come up with. In the meantime, here’s a few other helpful links if you’re ready to dive in and get serious.
From “Fluent in 3 Months: Unconventional Language Hacking Tips from Benny the Irish Polygot” A great Blog and website with a forum, resources, and his popular “3 month language hacking guide.” Follow him on his own mission to learn the language in every country he visits.
Rosetta Stone Language learning system, a bit expensive for the software, but efficient, effective, and definitely cheaper than enrolling in a university class. Could be worthwhile if you are planning on living abroad somewhere.