Break the language barrier . . .

42_cindy-2Special to the I-O by Cindy Habets Peterson
I often have people tell me that they are hesitant to travel to foreign countries because of the language barrier.  Indeed, wandering into a country where people are speaking a foreign tongue can be intimidating.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Here are some tried and true tips for traveling in countries where English is not the first language, or can be used if your Kymer/Japanese/Urdu is a little on the rusty side.

A smile is worth a thousand words

You will be amazed at how much you can convey without speaking.  The average person will go out of their way to help someone that smiles and asks politely for help, even if they can’t understand a word you are saying.  Much like at home, being angry or demanding won’t get you very far.  Even if you are frustrated, hot, and about to miss your train because you don’t know where you are or where you are supposed to be going, don’t lose your cool.  Take a deep breath, smile, and I guarantee that taxi driver will go out of his way to help you find the train station in record time.

Learn a few key phrases

Languages are hard, especially if you are visiting more than one country at a time, or trying to speak very different languages (I found Vietnamese to be virtually impossible).  Always try to learn a few key phrases in each language you encounter.  Attempt to learn to say “Hello”, “Nice to meet you”, “Goodbye”, and “Where is ….”.  Names of local food specialties also come in very handy when you are starving and handed a menu bearing no English translations.  Most guidebooks will have a small section listing these common phrases and a list of popular food, including their phonetic spellings.  Or, throw the book aside and ask a local.  Chances are you’ll make a new friend, and it’s a lot more fun than trying to learn from a book. 

Know the names of the cities you plan to visit

Even if you can’t speak a word of the language, know how to say the name of your next destination.  That way, if you are lost or don’t know which bus to get on, you are guaranteed to find someone to point you in the right direction if you just say “Parthenon” or “Moulay Idriss”. 

Use body language

You will be amazed at how much information you can exchange with someone who shares no common language simply by pointing, making noises and gesturing.  It might feel a bit like a crazy game of charades, but it works. Let me tell you a little story:
I was traveling some years ago with a couple of girlfriends in rural Italy.  We needed to a wake up very early the following day to catch a flight, and realized none of us had brought our travel alarm clocks.  We ventured into an old-time clock shop in a small village in Tuscany looking for a solution to our problem.

The proprietor was a friendly old man who spoke no English, while our Italian was limited to “hello”, “goodbye”, “that was delicious” and counting to ten.  It took a few tries, but with an impromptu skit about waking up, and making lots of “ding, ding, ding” noises worked.  We all cheered and celebrated when he understood and pulled a little alarm clock out for us. It’s a story we can still laugh about to this day and I’m sure he had a story to share with his family that night at dinner.

42_cindy-1Work your way up to more challenging countries

English is now fairly widely spoken in Western Europe, especially in the cities.  In some countries, such as Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, English is studied from a very young age.  First world Asian countries such as Japan and Korea are also very easy navigated – most signs are in English as well as the local language and you can usually find someone who would love to practice their English.  As you get more comfortable navigating countries and situations that require you to be creative in your communication, you will gain the confidence to travel to more exotic locations.

Travel in a group

As you are likely coming to realize if you read this column, I believe that interacting with the local people and cultures is the most rewarding part of travel.  If it is your first time in a country, or if you are traveling alone, there is a lot of comfort in having a guide who speaks the local language and can help with the logistics of navigating a new country.  There are several companies now that focus on small group trips, many with a sustainable focus.  This type of tour allows you more access and interaction with the local culture.  Two of my favorites are: and

Laugh at your adventures

After a month in Southern France, I was learning to read menus, and with overconfidence told my friend to order the pork dish.  Little did I know the rest of the description translated to “The hooves of”.  That’s right, the waiter delivered a plate of pig’s feet to our table.  While it was a tad traumatizing for my poor friend at the time, it has become on of the most memorable stories from our trip.  Travel is really about the adventure, so what fun would it be if it went perfectly?  That crazy dish you accidentally ordered will become the story that lives in your memory for years.

Don’t let a language barrier keep you from traveling to that place in your dreams.  Be patient and creative, and you’ll find plenty of people to help you along on your journey.

Happy Traveling!

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