Language barriers can happen anywhere, and you don’t necessarily have to be traveling to encounter them. From making small talk with the Deaf barista at your local coffee shop to engaging with the immigrant family on parent night at your kid’s school, knowing how to handle a language barrier can serve you in your daily life and when you travel.
Of course, this is a travel blog, so our primary focus here is on how to navigate a language barrier while traveling abroad, but we felt this note was an important place to start, as this post might serve you just as well at the grocery store as it does in Mongolia or Mumbai.
Let’s dive in!
The English Language
English speakers around the globe include you, the person reading these words, me, the person writing them, and another near billion and a half of our fellow humans. That’s right, close to twenty percent of the world population speaks English, making it the most commnly spoken language in the world today (followed by Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish and French respectively).
The amazing part is that if you’re a native English speaker, you’re far outnumbered by people who aren’t. Though a few hundred million people are native speakers; the majority have learned English in addition to their native language(s). English is the most common second language in the world, and that is how it has become the most used overall. This means that many English speakers do not even reside in a country where English is an official language.
All this to say, it’s pretty easy to get by speaking English when you travel. But there’s more to this than meets the eye. While statistics help us understand the scope of English’s reach, our travel experience has taught us a few things about speaking English abroad that shouldn’t be overlooked.
This brings us to our first tip…
Tip Number One: Don't Assume, Assimilate!
Sometimes (alright, usually), it’s more appropriate to assimilate to your destination, rather than asking the people in it to cater to your needs. You wouldn’t accept a dinner party invitation, and then expect your host to cook a recipe of your choosing with ingredients they don’t normally keep. You would politely accept the meal they serve, assimilating to the standards of their home, without imposing your own. Language works just the same way.
Asking the people around you to accommodate your needs by speaking English can be received poorly, depending on where you are. There are even some places around the globe where local people will not want to speak English with you even if they are able to. When a tourist is unwilling to engage in the local language, it can be seen as dismissive of the culture it comes from. This entitled tourist behavior usually results in a lower quality travel experience for everyone. The fix? Assimilate to the local language as much as possible.
Tip Number Two: Try Your Best!
It’s no secret that trying goes a long way in all walks of life. Absolutely nothing in the history of humanity has been accomplished without first being tried. Though attempting to speak in an unfamiliar language can feel a bit embarrassing, the effort behind the attempt won’t go unnoticed.
Even if your destination has locals who are openly receptive to speaking English, it is still a kind practice to engage them in their native language at first. Even attempting a “hello” can make a big impact. It shows that you are excited about your destination and are there to experience its culture and way of life.
Simply trying will set you up for positive interactions and ultimately, lead to a better experience for all. Trying will earn you a participation trophy you can be proud of!
Tip Number Three: Smiles are Universal
Don’t worry, we aren’t about to tell women they need to smile more. This is just a reminder that a smile will set the tone of patience and compassion; two factors that aid communication in all its forms, language barriers included.
Remember that the patience component isn’t there for the local person, it’s there for you as the tourist. Your smile is for asking locals to be patient with you. If you can earn someone’s patience, they will stick with you to ensure you understand what is being discussed. Set the tone well, and you will be rewarded with the help you need to get by when there’s a language barrier.
Fortunately, world travel lends itself to smiling often, so this tip is a pretty natural way to go. 🙂
Tip Number Four: Hand Gestures
This is where it starts to get tricky. You may have noticed the theme of respect connecting each of our language barrier tips. With respect as the ultimate goal, it’s important to avoid doing anything blatantly disrespectful, which can require some homework.
Did you know that some hand gestures commonly used in the United States are considered rude in other countries? It’s true. From the “thumbs up” sign to pointing at something directly with one finger, some of our everyday gestures won’t go over well in other places.
Before you take off, research which gestures are considered rude in the culture of your destination. Being respectful requires knowing how to behave, but also knowing how not to.
Besides being potentially offensive, sometimes hand gestures offer more confusion than clarity. In the United States, we commonly represent the number “three” on our hand with the pointer finger, middle finger and ring finger extended. In most places, however, “three” is represented by the thumb, pointer finger and middle finger instead. This is even true for American Sign Language! Awareness of these differences could make or break a successful communication.
Tip Number Five: Sherpani Language Translation Wallpapers!
Did you know that we have a segment of the Sherpani Travel Blog dedicated to one of our favorite travel hacks? The hack is to change your cell phone wallpaper to helpful words and phrases in an unfamiliar language. From toasting in celebration to asking where you might find the bathroom, our Language Translation Wallpapers are a quick way to cover the travel basics of a new language.
Visit our blog's “Wallpapers” tab for an ever-expanding library of free, downloadable Language Translation Wallpapers. They are especially helpful for solo travel, impulsive travel or situations when you’re only in a new country for the day.
Hopefully, you now feel more confident about how to approach language barriers. Frankly, we aren’t even a big fan of the term “language barrier.” So here is a sixth, bonus tip about that…
Tip Number Six (Bonus!): Reframe
Replace “language barrier” with the words “new language opportunity” to reframe this part of travel. To claim it as a barrier or obstacle feels constricting while treating it as an opportunity feels more authentic to the travel experience (which we all know is ripe with opportunity). Barriers hold you back, while opportunities help you grow, and there’s no doubt that world travel goes hand-in-hand with growth, so we don’t feel this reframe is too big a stretch.
It’s no secret that travel comes with a fair amount of the unknown, but that’s all part of the experience! Do you have a favorite travel memory that involved a new language opportunity? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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