“I don’t speak German; there’s no way I could visit Germany.”
“How did you feel visiting Iceland…you don’t even know the language! Was that hard?
“I don’t know enough Spanish to feel comfortable visiting Latin countries.”
I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many comments similar to these I’ve heard, even from my dad! Don’t exclude specific countries from your travel list simply because of the language barrier. You’re only preventing yourself from the potential adventures and memories to be made! I do understand that how I see the world may be different from many people. I have inherited my mother’s “wing it–what could possibly go wrong??” attitude, while simultaneously inheriting my engineer father’s “plan every little detail” attitude. So in situations such as visiting a foreign country, my mother says, “Go for it! It will be awesome!” while my lovely dad asks me 5 million “what if” questions. When it comes to language barriers, I will have to say I gained my mother’s attitude. Since I’m still half similar to my dad, I’d love to share tips to overcoming the language barrier while traveling.
Be prepared by knowing simple phrases
The language barrier will seem less intimidating if you learn simple phrases such as hello/goodbye, please/thank you, I’m sorry/excuse me, yes/no, how are you! Other simple phrases can include asking for directions/help, specific allergies, numbers, their currency, and even introducing yourself. A piece of advice my grandma once told me, “If you go to Germany, Miranda, all you really need to know is ‘eine bier, bitte’ and ‘Wo ist die toilette?'” Solid advice grandma: know how to ask for a beer and the bathroom. In general, people are more willing and happier to help you if you attempt their language. Don’t worry about getting it wrong!
If you’re a native English speaker, consider yourself extremely blessed! A majority of people in other countries can speak it fluently as their second language, or they will know more English than you would their native tongue! Keep in mind that some words aren’t very universal (such as more “polite” ways of saying bathroom/restroom/etc. Just ask for the toilet! You’re fine). Speaking as an American though, please don’t assume someone can speak your language! I’ve learned smiles and gestures go along way. When visiting Iceland, many shop and restaurant owners in Reykjavik could hear my aunt and I speak English while wandering. They were always kind enough to speak English to us, and a few seemed excited to practice it on us!
Take advantage of resources
Resources can be:
- technology, such as translation apps, even maps (on your phone or hard copy). Everyone anywhere will appreciate your effort.
- anyone in the tourism industry. Have them mark on a map where you want to go to show a cab driver or they can write down the destination in their language. Tour guides typically will speak English and could help translate and also assist you when it comes to cultural norms. We had a travel guide in Iceland, so the few remote places we visited where spoken English was scarce–he was a great help!
Learn some of the customs
This may indirectly help you with the language barrier as it will prevent uncomfortable situations. Learn what is and isn’t appropriate whether it’s specific words, gestures, how you dress, and general do’s and don’ts. Being respectful and aware will go a long way (y’know just great life advice in general….you’re welcome! 😉 )
Use your gestures
Gestures and facial expressions are a huge help to overcoming the language barrier (once you are aware of the inappropriate ones!). When I was younger, our neighbor had some relatives come visit from Poland: her mom, sisters, niece and nephews. They all came at different times, but they knew very little English. I spent quite a bit of the summer hanging around with her niece, and most of the time, it was a big game of charades! There never seemed to be quite the issue, she learned a bit of English, and I was able to learn some Polish (admittedly, some phrases not so appropriate for an 11 year old to know—oops!) Gesturing, pointing, and using simple phrases works better than you’d think!
If you’ve traveled abroad, what other tips have you found useful? Let me know in the comments!