Traveling language problems: ways to cope!
Traveling language problems part 4 of forever roaming the world’s Long-term budget traveling realism’s series.
It all started amazing, your adventure is going to plan, you’re living the dream backpacking in an exotic foreign country. Full of confidence you’ve decided to venture further away from the tourist area, finding yourself in a local area. But, that’s where it hits you, you’re face to face with it for the first time. Panic strikes, you look around for help but there isn’t any…What the fuck do you do when you’re faced with traveling language problems for the first time and don’t know how to get past language barriers?
We shit ourselves, those of us from English speaking countries try to shout louder thinking that will make a difference. We get frustrated that they don’t speak English, ultimately though we feel like idiots.
Imagine if there weren’t any traveling language problems
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we never had any language barriers, nothing lost in translation, no communication problems? Imagine if we could just walk into any country in the world and just understand each other….Yeah, that would be great, but we all know that’s not reality. The reality is there are going to be language barriers, there are going to be times when we panic because we can’t speak the same language. But, don’t fret or get put off from traveling to these exotic foreign countries or going completely off the beaten track. There are ways to overcome it.
In this latest traveling realisms post we’ll cover how to overcome language barriers traveling to countries that don’t speak English, the different ways to communicate and show how it can actually be quite fun at times.
On a personal note, I wish I learnt in school
Don’t get me wrong, yes English is universally recognized, most of the world speak it or at least understand but there will be places and people that don’t.
The longer I’ve backpacked, the more nationalities I’ve met from all over the world, I do wish I learnt a 2nd or 3rd language in school. I’m sure many of you can relate, those of us from English speaking Countries mainly the UK, America and Australia, we never bothered to learn another language. If you did, then props to you but I know I had that ‘English arrogance’ of “Why do I need to learn another language, I’m English, the whole world speaks English.”…Yeah, yeah I know!
How to overcome language barriers traveling
The scenario I mentioned right at the beginning of the post could happen anywhere. It could be in a local area, local markets, bus stations, airports, in remote villages or even in a shopping centre, even with other backpackers. But because of the age we live in, It’s not hard to over come traveling language problems, we have quite a few options in fact.
Language problems can dissapear at our fingertips
let’s not kid ourselves, backpacking isn’t like it was years ago. So many countries around the world are geared for backpackers. There are backpacker routes all over the world; so it’s not like we go off and dissapear into the complete unknown for a period of time. The world has got smaller because of that lovely thing we all depend on everyday of our lives. We can’t live without it, we carry it around in our pockets.
Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this post, nor would it have reached 131 countries – Yup that’s right I’m talking about the Internet
The internet provides so many tools that have helped bridge the gap between languages barriers like never before. No, it doesn’t solve all the language problems when traveling. There will be times when you don’t have signal, or your battery runs out, and there will be small villages that are not privy to the new world yet. However, it will be one of your biggest resources with language problems.
There is one tool on the internet that we’ve come to depend on more than others….Yes, that’s right Skynet…Sorry I mean Google! ( If you know the Terminator films, you’ll understand the reference).
Google comes with so many functions but Google translate will be one of your biggest aids with language problems. It can help you out translating words into English to help you communicate with locals. You will see in certain countries, locals will have google translate ready to translate words into English for you.
It comes with a couple of cool added features too. If you hover your camera over a word it translates it on the screen; very helpful for road signs, notice boards and menus. There is a voice option on there, so you say a phrase and it will translate into the local language. However do be warned, while this is great help, it doesn’t reconstruct sentences. So if a language uses a different sentence structure to English it can sometimes be embarrassing or worse cause issues.
Overall though you will rely on it more times than you wont. It’s come to my aid plenty of times over the years and even helped me in a very sticky situation with an over-zealous highway Police officer in Medellin, Colombia. I won’t get into it, but without google translate that mornings things could have got very bad that morning.
If Google isn’t your thing, then there are other language-specific translators to help you overcome language barriers.
Learn a few basic words
Imagine that scenario at the top of the post, think how awkward it would be just standing there not knowing how to communicate with that person. you might try and do the whole talk louder thing but you’re just making a fool out of yourself. That local will be looking at you thinking what an ignorant tourist and be less willing to help you out. Chances are they might have even understood you, but because of the way behaved they’re not.
Now imagine that scenario again but this time, imagine you knew a few basic words to try and communicate. Can you imagine what the response would be this time?
I’ll tell you, they would be much more willing to help you, they would try and communicate back, there would be some laughter between you both, and help put you at ease a little and between you figured out a way for the language barrier not to be an issue.
The point I’m making is, you can’t underestimate the effect and power of just learning a few basic works can have. It shows that you are trying, that you respect being in their country there isn’t an arrogance about you.
Learning a few basic words like hello, thank you, please, you’re welcome, can you help me, I don’t speak the language, do you speak English, water, food items, a few numbers; can go a long way. nobody is expecting you to conversate fluently, they don’t either but it helps. You’ll be shocked to see by just trying to speak the language they might even open up and show you that they do in fact speak English.
There are some great apps out there where you can learn the basics, like Duallingo, Babbel, memrise, mindsnacks. I used Duallingo to learn basic Spanish, it’s fun to use, quick to learn and gives you simple and useful phrases too. Remember you don’t have to be fluent but learning the basics helps.
Writing things down helps
It doesn’t hurt to write a few basic words down before you start your trip, you can get to grips with it so it puts you in good stead. Ask at your hostel too, staff can help you with a few words and jot down a few words of phrases you think you might need for the day. Things like “How much is this?”…”Is this bus going to”…”Where is the bathroom?”…”Can I have a beer please”…These little things just make it so much easier for you to eradicate language barriers.
On a side note, knowing a few basic words can also help with taxi drivers too. There are times you might encounter a dodgy driver who targets gullible tourists, by knowing a few words it can help not get scammed.
Knowing a few basic words makes you sound less like a tourist too, which in turn doesn’t make you a target for scammers and petty thieves.
Although I’m not a big fan of them, you can carry a good old fashioned phrase book around with you. You can pick up longer phrases, even sentences in the correct way they should be constructed. You can learn if a word if masculine, feminine when to use that word etc.
Personally, I rather keep these books at home or in my hostel if I do ever use them. Why? Because carrying them around, getting them out in public just makes you look like a tourist and in turn a target for petty thieves. And it’s also quite difficult at times to stand there rifling through pages to look for the right words or phrase while you’re trying to speak to somebody.
(Click on banner below to buy your lonely planet guide or phrase book)
Saying that, if you have one sitting next to your lonely planet book, pick it up and learn a few phrases.
Body language/miming/hand gestures
I have to admit, this can feel embarrassing to some, but It’s one of my favourite ways to communicate and get over language barriers. Why? Because It’s guaranteed to bring out laughs from both sides.
And that the thing, sometimes it’s just the laughter, the intent of trying to communicate that eradicates any tension between you and a local. Body language, hand gestures, miming is a fun way to bypass language problems.
There are some universal motions that are known the world over. Hand gestures are easily recognizable like gesturing for a bill in a restaurant, if you have an upset stomach, wanting a drink, etc. However, you should make sure which gestures are acceptable. This post 10 gestures misunderstood Is very useful.
There was a time in Thailand, I didn’t have a phone, no WiFi to translate, I was tired and just couldn’t think of the word. The old Thai lady gave me the same blank look as I was giving her, so what did I do? Yup, I tucked my hands into my hips, elbows out and mimicked a chicken, clucking noises included. She burst out laughing but knew exactly what I meant, I laughed and we bonded. For days afterwards whenever she saw me it brought a smile to her face. It was worth the embarrassment.
Watch and listen
Ever find yourself just people watching? If you’re like me and you do, this is a great way to pick up words too. A lot of the time you can make out what somebody is trying to say from their body language and movements. If you’re in a local market, just listen and watch how locals interact with each other. You can do it anywhere, in a cafe, on a beach, the riverbank, wandering down the streets, on transport.
Watch and listen to what they say, their body language, their mannerisms, and even facial expressions. Take it all in, after seeing it a few times you’ll start to recognize what they mean and then you can start using them.
If you’re in a restaurant subtly watch and listen to what others order and then see what dish comes out. It’s like a recognition game for your brain.
Long term backpackers overcoming language barriers
While learning a few basic words and google translate are great to help you out, there’s only so far it can take you. If you’re traveling long term, you might get chatting with locals but with just a few basic words, that conversation is going to dry up quick.
So what are your options?
Many countries around the world offer language classes to travelers. Do some research, check what level you want to be taught at, the length of time you want to put into it. You can do crash courses, or slow lessons, there are private tutors or you can attend classroom sessions in groups. It’s up to you and at your own pace and budget.
Alternatively, you can be the teacher, there are a plethora of programs to become English teachers, in some countries you don’t even have to be a recognized teacher back home. There are volunteer programs where you can teach English and while you’re teaching English, you’ll learn the local language from the kids and local teachers around you. (For more info check out World teach or TEFL)
Be around locals
Make friends with locals, Couchsurf, hang around in local places, people watch, take part in a volunteering program or take part in a home-stay. Like with listening and watching you pick up so much from just being around locals. Although there may be some language problems being around locals, you’re hearing it all the time around you so you’re more likely to absorb it.
While I backpacked through Central and South America, I picked up so much Spanish. From knowing just basic words in Mexico, by the time I reached Bolivia I was able to conversate because I surrounded myself with locals and backpackers who could speak Spanish. I made friends with locals, I drank more in local bars than backpacker or tourist bars. It was a great way to learn the language but also make some good friends, get more of an insight into their towns and cities.
Watch movies in the local language
A fellow backpacker told me this once and I laughed thinking it was ridiculous.
It was only during a bus ride I took once, the movie was in the local language but I knew the movie well enough to pick up what was being said, so I picked up more local words that way. The backpacker who told me about it was right. It worked.
There was also a Colombian I knew who spoke perfect English,I asked if he learned it in school and he told me he hadn’t. He spoke and understood English just from watching movies in English; I was amazed he could speak perfect English just from watching movies.
The traveling realism is that for long term backpackers there will be times when language barriers pop up, especially if we choose to travel to remote areas and places. But now you’ve seen how to overcome language barriers when traveling, I hope it helps you out on your journey.
If you’re out there somewhere in the world, and have been struggling with language barriers try some of the things you’ve seen in this post. Let me know how you get on.
Did you find this ‘Language problems when traveling’ post helpful? Let me know in the comments below if there is anything else you would like to know.
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