No Comprendo – What to Do When You Don’t Speak the Language
One of the most common travel struggles is the language barrier between countries. Use this mini-guide to navigate the waters, and watch your horizons broaden.
Before You Go:
1. Do your research.
Not all countries rely on only one language, and some are more used to foreign travelers than others. Spend a little time reading about your destination to understand the region’s linguistic complexities. You might just find that your language is spoken far more frequently than you’d expect.
2. Consider a lingua franca.
If you’re a French speaker who doesn’t know a lick of German, speaking to the locals in Berlin could be as simple as switching to English. Many countries use lingua francas, or common languages, in tourist situations. English is the most common, but Spanish, French and Chinese are widely spoken in various parts of the world.
3. Learn the regional phrases.
You should definitely try to pick up a few basic terms — “please,” “thank you” and “I would like” will do you wonders — but try to learn as many colloquial phrases as possible. These regional terms will go a long way toward earning you respect with the locals. For instance, though Spanish textbooks frequently advise you to use “la cuenta, por favor” to ask for the check, Spanish locals frequently say “me cobra” for the same purpose. Just be sure to search for phrases that are applicable to the country you’re visiting; what’s standard in one place could be highly offensive in others.
While You’re There:
1. Listen to the locals.
Pay attention in bars, restaurants and shops. If you can make out what people around you are saying, you might just pick up a few key phrases to get you through your vacation. Just give it time; your first day in a foreign city is likely to be jarring, but you’ll find yourself acclimating to the language sooner than you’d think.
2. Make an effort.
No matter where you go, saying “hello,” “goodbye” and “thank you” in the local dialect will earn you major bonus points. If the person in question speaks your language, he or she will likely switch immediately, but your effort will not go unnoticed.
3. Get comfortable with gestures.
If all you can manage are the most cursory greetings, don’t be afraid to simply point at what you want on a menu or gesture for the check. Learning an apology in the local language helps here, but as long as you’re polite and respectful, you’ll find minimal resistance to this strategy.
1. Be polite.
We can’t repeat this often enough. Tone of voice is just as important as the language you’re speaking, and a few basic niceties will make up for any vocabulary you mangle.
2. Speak slowly but not loudly.
Unless you’ve managed to assume a killer impression with your basic phrases, you’ll likely have a thick foreign accent. Slow down to make sure you’re understood, but resist the urge to speak loudly.
This comes off as offensive in nearly every language.
We hope this gives you a little background on traveling to foreign lands and communicating with the locals.