The Language Barrier

The language barrier is one of the biggest fears for most people when they travel to new and foreign lands. It can be very intimidating and cause some headaches and surely some stress. It can take seemingly forever to accomplish a simple task because you cannot figure out what to do either from written or spoken words. To be honest, not speaking a language or understanding some parts of it can be the most frustrating part of your trip and it can in fact ruin it for some people. But that is a shame. You should never let a little thing like language get in your way of enjoying yourself and getting to know a place and its people. Always remember that people are people; language is language and to quote Casca from the great William Shakespeare’s classic play, Julius Caesar, “It’s all Greek to me”.

The best and most commonly given advice about overcoming a language barrier is to learn some basics in the other language. From French to Swahili and Fijian to Spanish, it’s always good to know a few words. The most important two words are hello and thank you. If you can break the ice with hello and close every interaction with a thank you, you are half way there. The simple fact is that MOST people under 50 in developed nations speak at least discernable English. Generally their English is better than your high school whatever the language is. The idea is to make them feel comfortable and to endear yourself to them so they actually want to help you.

The best way to do this is to say a very polite hello in the local language with a big smile and then an even more polite ‘do you speak English?’ in English. This will likely relax the person who obviously will not have English as a first language and since you politely tried to engage him in the local language, he will want to speak English with you. A big smile and some politeness goes a long way-trust me.

In developing and non-developed countries and I am including China, it is understandably a little more difficult. The trick in the big cities is generally to ask questions at nicer hotels even if you’re not staying there or look for younger people. Possibly students and young professionals who seem educated to help you out. They will generally be very happy to practice their English with you and even more excited to speak to a westerner. They may even ask for a picture with you. This happens to me all the time in Asia especially. I am a tall white guy with a big smile and it’s amazing what kind of currency you get out of that in Asia!
In rural and undeveloped areas of Asia, South America, Middle East, Eastern Europe and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa it can be days before you find someone that speaks English. Obviously in South America it is a real help to brush up on some Spanish and the same goes for Francophone Africa if you have some remedial French. Those two languages are great to have a base in for much of the world. If you know any of the Cyrillic languages, Arabic, or Mandarin you will be OK in certain parts of the world. If not then you will have to rely on the single most important thing in communication; body language.

I cannot tell you how important a smile and body language can be. I have been in countless situations in all kinds of crazy places in the world where all I had to communicate with was my hands and tone of voice. It can get you out of a lot of trouble and help others to help you. Remember in these parts of the world, the people are generally more curious about you than you are of them. They want to help you. They may want to touch you or just look at you. It is conceivable that they may have never seen a white man before. This has happened to me.

But the important thing is to NEVER lose your patience with people like this. Trust me, I know how hard it can be but losing it doesn’t do any good. You’re in their country…it’s always important to remember that. Bangladeshis don’t come to the United States and start barking at Americans in Bangla, so show others the same courtesy.
The louder and angrier you speak English at someone who speaks none will not help you and will only alienate them. Remember a smile and the right tone go a long way. Again, think of it like this; if a Chinese person starts yelling loudly at you in Mandarin; will that make you understand him any more if you speak no Mandarin….NO! It’ll piss you off and make you leave…it works both ways.

So the next time you are anywhere that doesn’t speak your native tongue; whether it’s Western Europe where most people speak English or Western China where few people do; approach people with a few kind words in their language and a big smile. It will serve you better in the short term and it will make Americans or whatever your nationality, look much better in the long run. Nobody expects you to speak every language but a little effort, a little cultural understanding and a big smile goes a long way. And again, but this time to quote the great Axl Rose from the controversial Guns N’ Roses song ‘One in a Million’, “It’s all Greek to me”.

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  1. It’s a good story Lee but I still can’t deal with the Arabs in Saudi. I don’t have any Arabic and I barely even talk to them anyway.

  2. Totally agree about going into a nice hotel and asking for help/directions

  3. I’ve also been in the situation where body language was the only way to communicate. It is tough and annoying but you nailed it saying that tone is also important.

  4. This story reminded me of a hilarious language barrier story. A girl was traveling through South America via bus – where she was going is not important in the story. She had an assigned aisle seat that had split up a family. The family spoke Spanish. To be nice, she offers to switch seats and says “quieres sentir aqui?” while pointing at her seat/lap. What she meant to say was “do you want to sit here?” What she actually said was “do you want to feel here?” (while pointing at the general area of her crotch). Well, the husband of the family wisely looked at his wife before responding, and in the end, they knew what she meant. It made for a funny story and the family was nice enough to share their snacks with her (and help her with her Spanish) during the rest of the long bus ride. Moral of the story – its ok to make a mistake, so long as your intention is a good one, everyone will have a good laugh about it.

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