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Logistics and Linguistics

October 10, 2009


My favorite aspect about traveling to a foreign country is often people’s worst nightmare – not being able to understand the local language.  Perhaps it’s an optimistic take on the situation but I like knowing I’m on vacation and there is no better reminder of that than the constant language barrier encountered on a daily basis, whether it’s asking for directions, ordering food or reading a sign; however; this linguistic limbo commences even before you set foot on foreign soil.  It starts when you’re making reservations and planning your logistics… and that’s when you should start preparing your tongue as well.

Your first confrontation with a foreign language may actually occur within the walls of your own English-speaking home – months before your trip – when you are calling abroad to plan for accommodations, activities and travel.  It is not until you are already on the phone that you realize the communication issues you are about to face.  Most hotels will put their best English speaking employee on the phone to help in the reservation process but their accent may be so thick that it’s difficult to interpret what they are saying.  And thus the plot thickens… even though you were both speaking English there was still a communication barrier, making you even more concerned about your upcoming excursion.  So what are some ways to aid in getting along in a non-English speaking country?

Familiarize yourself with pronunciation (Vous familiariser avec la prononciation / Machen Sie vertraut sich mit Aussprache / 発音に習熟してください。)

Most of your dialogue will be about the same topics: reservations, destinations and most often, ordering food.  Fortunately, many of these situations will include a visual medium that you can rely on such as a menu, so by familiarizing yourself with the sounds of letters and proper pronunciation of the language you can at least correctly say what you want so the person you’re talking with can somewhat comprehend your gibberish.  Taking time to be more elocutionary in another language combined with strategic pointing and body language (more on that later) can take you a long way in a foreign country.

Make an attempt (Intente / Fare un tentativo / να κάνει μια προσπάθεια)

As an English speaking traveler, I am already lucky in that the rest of the world places more importance on learning a second language than America does, so many educated youths know some level of English.  But that doesn’t mean that I – as a foreigner in THEIR country – should expect them to know and speak MY language.  Even if the person you try and talk to eventually proves to know English, make an attempt at speaking their native tongue first.  Whatever you do, do not start a conversation off with “Do you speak English?” (and no, it doesn’t count even if you say it in a foreign language!).  Save that as your fail safe for when every other effort has been exhausted.  Too often travelers want people to cater to their needs and make them feel comfortable; however, try using greetings and introductory phrases in a foreign language to break the ice and you will find that people’s response and willingness to attempt communication with you will be much more welcoming because they appreciate your efforts.

Speak body language (Use linguagem de corpo / Vant kropp språk / استخدام لغة الجسم)

Some are blessed with being linguistically savvy while others struggle in remembering even a few common phrases but communicating in a foreign country goes far beyond what can come out of your mouth.  Certain body language and hand gestures are universally understood and there is no shame in using them to get your point across.  Pointing, looks of confusion, thumbs up or down, showing numbers with your fingers – all of which are great tools to utilize when word aren’t enough.

Don’t get frustrated (Не становитесь разбитыми / ไม่ได้รับอัดใจ / 不被挫败)

You’re in a foreign land, completely out of your comfort zone and almost nothing seems familiar, so the language difficulties in being able to order your evening’s meal may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Just chill.  A bad attitude and short temper will only close lines of communication rather than open them up, so keep in mind that a conversation that may seem frustrating to you is most likely frustrating for the other person as well.  Be patient, but most of all be understanding of the differences between you and the person with whom you are conversing.  I’ve seen Americans abroad refuse to speak anything but English and then treat people as if they are mentally slow because they do not understand them.  Please, don’t be that a**hole.

A foreign language should be part of the reason you travel somewhere rather than a deterrence – just like the art, food, music and landmarks that you are traveling to see and visit – a language is also a reflection of a country’s culture that should be appreciated rather than avoided.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. jonmarcotte permalink
    October 10, 2009 10:03 AM

    Great article! Trying to speak the language will take you far in getting you what you want. More often than not, people will be more than willing to help if you attempt at speaking the language (no matter how poor the attempt). Another thing to study up on before you leave is the differences in cultures and food. This will add to your appreciation and enjoyment on your vacation.

    • darrenbrazil permalink*
      October 10, 2009 10:13 AM

      Why would you have ever lost interest in traveling to Mexico, huh??? Hijo de la…

      • jonmarcotte permalink
        October 10, 2009 1:22 PM

        I got tired of being pulled over by the cops and extorted for money

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