Overcoming Language Barriers Abroad
Traveling abroad is one of the most thrilling and exhilarating experiences a person can have, but that doesn’t mean that everything is always smooth sailing. There are many hurdles to be faced when leaving your home country… culture differences, geographic challenges, and of the most prevalent… language barriers! It wasn’t until Jaison and I had to fill out a document that was written in Greek, did we truly understand and appreciate the phrase, “It’s Greek to me.”
Thailand was our first major experience with significant language barriers, but nothing compared to the three weeks we spent in Vietnam. We truly began to master the art of finding creative ways to understand and be understood in return, and would be remiss if we didn’t share what we’ve learned along the way. After all, information is worthless if it isn’t shared! So without further ado, here are our top ways to survive language barriers when traveling abroad:
Google Translate is an absolute gem when facing a language barrier! You just type in what you want to say, and select the language you need it translated to. It’s a lifesaver, as long as you have Wi-Fi (unless of course, you have a great international data plan or you’re an android-user, in which case you can download languages to use offline.) As for me and my domestic-use only iPhone… we were forced to binge use Google Translate before leaving our Airbnb home each day. We translated where we wanted to go, possible questions we could have once we got there, and information about how to get us back “home.” Google Translate was our best friend, when we had Wi-Fi access!
Collect Business Cards from Hotels and Restaurants
We found that many business cards abroad have special information like translations into the native language and sometimes maps of where the particular location is. Taxi drivers are used to seeing these, and they are very helpful when trying to get back to your hotel, hostel, Airbnb, etc. More often than not, these business cards also have the telephone number of the place you’re trying to go. So if worse comes to worst, and your taxi driver doesn’t know how to get there, he or she will automatically just call the phone number listed and get directions straight from the source. You can’t go wrong with this one!
Take Pictures and Screenshots
When facing a language barrier, a picture could potentially be worth much more than a thousand words. Before you leave your “home” abroad, take pictures of the places you’re trying to get to and/or the product that you’re looking for. If the place or item is popular, locals could potentially identify it just by looking at the photo. Aside from the actual picture itself, be sure to screenshot as much information as you can about it. The more info you have, the better people can help you, and the more likely you are to actually make it there and find what you need!
I can’t honestly say that Jai and I ever used phrasebooks in our travels. We didn’t feel it was a necessary purchase for us, and we wanted travel as lightly as possible. But don’t let our resistance to it deter you! If you’re not interested in purchasing a physical book, check in your mobile app store and see if there is a phrasebook you can download onto your phone. In Indonesia, there’s a free phrasebook app called “Indonesian.” We rarely ever used it, but it was nice to have just for back up. Also, it didn’t require us to connect to Wi-Fi, which is definitely a plus!
Charades (Hand Gestures) & Pictionary (Draw it Out)
We most certainly had no problem reverting back to these games from our childhood! When we had no Wi-Fi for Google Translate, no business cards, no pictures or screenshots, and no phrasebook, these two games became “Ole’ Faithful” to us.
When it doubt, act (or draw) it out! While we felt absolutely foolish every time we had to resort to these measures, we can honestly say that nine times out of ten, they worked! This is where my experiences in theater and Jaison’s in stand-up comedy really came in handy! Neither of us are the best artists, so Charades worked out for us much more often than Pictionary did, but go with your strengths on this one!
Look for a Middle Man
Even in countries where English isn’t the dominant language, you’re still likely to find at least one person who can speak a little of it. Don’t be afraid to ask people if they or someone nearby speaks English. And honestly, sometimes, you don’t even have to ask. When Jai and I were in business establishments and we began speaking, if they couldn’t understand us, they would go and find someone who could. And whenever we found ourselves in a real bind, there was often a passerby that was kind enough to act as a translator for us. Remain pleasant and someone will always be willing to help you.
Smile A Lot
This is probably the most important thing. Smiling is totally universal (except perhaps in Russia where it’s not customary to smile at strangers… Learned that the hard way!). No matter where you are or what language is spoken, be sure to smile and be kind. Language barriers can be completely frustrating, exhausting, stressful, nerve-wrecking… but remember, communication is a two-way street, and just as it may be all of these things for you, someone else is bound to be feeling them, too. Breath, stretch, shake, and smile! …Oh, and try one of the aforementioned strategies, too! :-)