Travel & Language: Overcoming the Barrier

Traveling to countries where you don’t speak the local language can be intimidating and a little bit scary. I find it is often tempting for travelers to stick to locations where their own native tongue is the common language. While this certainly makes traveling easier, it greatly limits your options for destinations. As a native English speaker though, I have traveled and lived in countries where I didn’t know even a word in the native tongue. Armed with a dictionary or a translation device, you can navigate even the farthest corners of our beautifully colorful world.

Things to remember about traveling abroad when you don’t speak the language:

  • It broadens your horizons! Ah the unknown. It is both terrifying and exhilarating. Embrace the adrenaline and the fear….enjoy it! These places will only be “foreign” at first.
    • Countries with the same primary language tend to be quite similar in culture and tradition as well. There are many parallels when you consider England and the USA. Sure, they are different countries and have many differences, but the similarities are far more numerous.
    • Cultures and customs in Japan, where I lived for two years, are extremely different from the United States for example. The languages are not related, and though Japanese borrows some words from English, the pronunciation is so different that these words do not sound familiar to the English speaking ear. The way of life, the way that strangers treat each other, cuisine as well as tourism trends are night and day between Japan and the USA.
  • English is a universal language! Most tourist attractions in larger cities or commonly traveled cities will have signage in English. Also, many locations will have brochures and maps in English as well as  other largely spoken languages like German, French, Spanish, Chinese (either Cantonese or Mandarin) as well as other languages commonly spoken by their neighboring countries.
    • Native English speakers, we are a bit spoiled. There are over 30 countries that have English as the primary language and most non-English speaking countries teach their students English as a second language beginning from elementary/primary school level. In the United States, most children do not receive any form of second language instruction in school until the high school/secondary level. It can be tempting to count on this fact and rely on the linguistic skills of the locals to accommodate us.
  • By learning a few basic words or phrases in the local language, we are ensuring that we can communicate with even the older generations who may not have had the instruction in English that younger people may have had. “Excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, “Where is the train station?” , “Where is the toilet?” , “How much does this cost?”, “Can you please repeat that?”, numbers, left, right, and straight/forward are all vital to basic communication.
    • Making even the smallest attempt to speak to someone in their native tongue shows respect for the country that you have chosen to visit. If the country is interesting and intriguing enough to visit, respect their customs and culture by learning basic phrases. Most people will appreciate your struggled attempt and will ask if you speak another language and offer to communicate in your native language. If they don’t, they will be patient enough to try to convey the replies as easily as possible.
  • Gone are the days of the thick paper dictionaries! The internet and smartphone applications are full of language translators! While the grammar and syntax may not be entirely reliable for accuracy, and often word choice can be slightly off, most people will understand what you are attempting to convey.

Take that leap, open yourself up to truly new and foreign experiences and you will only find your travels more rewarding. Your soul, your compassion for the world and your acceptance of the diversity of the human existence will be deepened. You will be forever changed for the better!

“Keep your heart open, a suitcase packed and wander often, for the world is wide and adventure awaits.”  ~ Emylee

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