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How to Navigate a Language Barrier

By: Vincent Ventura

Especially when traveling, foreign language is an invaluable tool. Communicating in the host language allows you to save time and frustration plus unlocks the cultural secrets from the people and language itself. What happens though when you don’t know the language? What happens when you spontaneously travel to Hungary or completely forget your high school semesters of Spanish? As someone who has stumbled and survived more than one-English speaking country with very little knowledge of the local language, here are some ways to relieve some stress, and maybe jump some language barriers:

  • Write it down! If you have time, prepare before you go. Look up key vocabulary online including greetings, popular food and beverages, tourist attractions, etc. and log them in a notebook or on your phone. Notate these words and phrases in two ways: 1) the standard foreign-language to English translation, 2) phonetically so you can pronounce the word if you need to use it in conversation (if you use Google translate, you can hear the proper pronunciation of these words). If there are foreign characters and you cannot properly write down/type, do your best to use the foreign characters or screenshot an image of the word if you are using a phone. Having your notepad or phone with these words will allow a resource for you to basically communicate. If you feel comfortable enough, try and speak! If not, you always have it written down copy to show someone if your five-minute foreign language education wasn’t good enough.
  • Try to communicate in another foreign language. You don’t speak French. Frenchman doesn’t speak English. But maybe you coincidentally both speak Italian. You never know what languages people speak. So, ask! Although it may seem a little roundabout, this may be the only way you or your travel companions can interact with someone. Even if you don’t necessarily speak the same exact language, many languages share similar characteristics because they are part of the same language families (i.e French and Italian). So even if the Frenchman doesn’t completely understand English or Italian, it still may be possible while speaking two different languages!
  • Use nonverbal communication. Not all language is spoken. Take advantage of everything including gestures, pointing, vocal tone, and facial expressions. It’s just like playing a game of charades; only it’s significantly harder to win and impossible to cheat. It may seem incredibly awkward but sometimes, it is your only option. Be patient and realize that this is probably just as frustrating for the other person you are trying to communicate with. Remember, you are not the only one in this situation who is trying to overcome a language barrier. You’re almost guaranteed to make a fool out of yourself but it may pay off. That is, if you can overcome the awkwardness.
  • Ask a local! If you are lucky enough to meet someone who you can speak with, ask them for a language lesson. From waiters to taxi drivers, everyone can be a teacher. Just be friendly and polite. Locals can teach you dialect, idiomatic expressions, and correct pronunciation- all things a foreign-language dictionary can’t do. You can sometimes return the favor by teaching them some English.

Language barriers are infuriating at times. Impossible to prevent, the better you prepare for language barriers, the easier they are to overcome. Plus you may learn something new and walk away with an incredibly entertaining story. Happy travels!

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