How To Hop Around Language Barriers

How To Hop Around Language Barriers

I don't learn languages. I just don't.

It's not that I don't try, it's just that have about the same luck conjugating verbs as I do solving calculus problems... and I was the girl trading English papers for my buddy's Math homework back in grade school.

So languages aren't my thing... But backpacking still is. 


Here is how I've made it through over 25 countries (only 3 of them being English speaking) without knowing more than a lick of the home tongue.

1.) Learn how to say

"Hello" "Thank you so much" "I'm sorry" and "My _______ is very bad but I am learning" in whatever language of the country you are traveling through.

I start of every conversation with a friendly Hello in the home language and flash a HUGE smile before I drop the "My Spanish/ Arabic/ whatever language is really bad but I am learning" line. 

In casual, no pressure conversation it works every time. Sometimes the local will immediately respond in English (no matter how broken) and sometimes they will not speak any English at all but after establishing that you are not some asshole and actually a nice (if slightly stupid) person, they will try to tackle the language barrier with you (or someone who speaks English will overhear and come to the rescue.)  

If it's a place where the person you are interacting with is in a time crunch (or is in a shitty mood because they hate their job at the local bus station or Quik-E-Mart) forget the "I'm learning" part and say "Hi! My  _____ is very bad, I'm sorry" and then bust out in slow English with the aid of what ever visuals or words you know what you are trying to accomplish... still of course, with a smile on your face.

It's quicker, to the point and puts them in a higher position so maybe you will appeal to their kinder senses. Almost always that will entice them to help you out (or at least direct you to someone who can.)

The profuse use of "Thank you so much" and sometimes "I'm sorry, I'm learning" goes a long way as well.


2.) Be overly nice and smile a lot

Okay, imagine yourself at your waitressing job or standing outside a store in your hometown and some random foreigner comes up to you (or you go up to them because you're at work) and starts spewing a whole bunch of shit in some other language that you totally don't understand. 

Imagine that person being SUPER friendly, apologetic for their lack of knowledge and extremely grateful for whatever little help that you may or may not be able to give them.

Now imagine that person stern faced and frustrated, pointing ferociously at a map or menu expecting you understand what they are trying to say. Who would you go out of your way to help?

That's what I thought. 

Don't be an asshole. No matter how frustrated you are, no matter unhelpful you feel the person is being, it's your own dumbass fault (and your lack of language skills) that you're in this position to begin with so no matter what, always stay super friendly, thankful and beyond appreciative for whatever help they can give you. 

Chances are, the friendlier you are, the more helpful they will be... And even if not, at least you're not acting like a dick. 


3.) Don't be afraid of coming off as a complete idiot

You're running around a foreign country with no grasp of the language, already you're not proving to be the brightest Crayon in the box so why in the world do you care if the lady at the local fruit stand thinks you're nuts (in a good way.)  

I have friends who take language barrier conversations so seriously and refuse to use extravagant visuals and won't try to engage locals in a game of Charades to get a point across because they "don't want to come off stupid." 

You can't even speak a remedial version of the host language - chances are the person already thinks your stupid... at least at some positive qualities to that perception by being fun and nice.

There are bus drivers, bartenders and street vendors all over the world (literally all over the world) who must think that I am the dumbest, craziest, most clueless little blonde they have ever met... But guess what? We had fun playing a street version of Charades and spontaneous Guessing Games, they helped me out and I got where I needed to go. 

You may come off dumb but being open and friendly will get you anywhere quicker than someone worried about coming of smart even if they have a better hold of the language. 


4.) Props and Gestures

The best prop you have when battling a language barrier is a smile.  Close seconds are guide books, maps and menus and then random visuals like pointing at a ticket or picture. Finally, gestures and facial expressions. 

If you have a local nice enough to help you out, all you need is a map that they can draw for you where to go or photo to point at. If you don't have these things, you can try to act it out, think of words they may know to tiptoe into what you are trying to say or last resort, gesture. 

The reason I don't have "No" or "Stop" in my necessary phrases is because just as laughter is universal, if you firmly say "No" or "Stop" in your own home tongue with a strong facial expression or hand gesture, there is no room for miscommunication and no need to take up that precious mental space. 

So those are my language barrier tips. Have fun with it and Happy Travels!