Not Fluent? Overcoming the Language Barrier 7 Ways

Travel and communication.  They pretty much go hand in hand.  It’s intimidating to go into a store or a restaurant without knowing a thing and trying to order especially when you can’t communicate.  Also, if you don’t see pictures on your menu, you might be really intimidated and just move on. Communication is key when traveling but I don’t think it needs to be a huge hurdle to overcome but just a slight bump in the road.  

Here are 7 ways to communicate effectively with anyone.  

  • Not about being fluent
  • Learn some keywords and phrases
  • Use Apps
  • Speak slowly and use simple words
  • Try another language
  • Mime/Charades
  • Draw

Not About Being Fluent

First, understand that it’s about getting your point across, not being fluent.  I’ve heard so many excuses as to why someone can’t/won’t travel somewhere because they don’t speak the language.  On one hand, I totally get it. It’s intimidating to go to a country where you don’t speak the language. On the other, I understand there are ways to communicate effectively other than speech so I don’t think that should prevent you from traveling.  I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking they need to be fluent in the language which couldn’t be further from the truth.  

If you took a language while in school, you’ve got a head start.  It doesn’t matter how long ago it was when you took the class, I bet you’ll be amazed at how quickly it comes back to you when  you start hearing it again. You’ll probably start remembering a few words that you didn’t even realize you knew or remembered.  

I remember when I was in Chile, I was trying to buy a gift for my Godson.  Well, I didn’t know the Spanish word for Godson and I just had a total brain fart when it came to remembering the Spanish word for baby (which is bebe so how I couldn’t remember that is beyond me).  So, in looking for a gift for a 3 year old boy, I was stumbling for words as the shop owner was trying to help me. Eventually I just said “hombre pequeno…es tres anos” which pretty much translates to “small man is 3 years old”.  It was terrible and I knew it was wrong. To be honest, I felt like an idiot as I was saying it but that was the only thing that came to mind as I was trying to get my point across. And you know what? She understood me just fine.  She guided me over to the toddler section of the shop so I could look around.  

It might feel stupid and you might feel like fool.  But if you need to get your point across, who cares?  I think this is a lesson we can all learn from because it’s so easy to find reasons not to do something or not to interact with someone that you’d be amazed how much you can understand one another if you really try.  Look if you think you can communicate with your family pet, you can certainly communicate with an intelligent human being.  

Learn a few key words and phrases

Choose your words tiles

Before you leave, I try to look up a few words and phrases so I know them by heart.  It isn’t much. It’s just simple words like hello, please, and thank you. I try to write them out in a small notebook but spelled phonetically so I can say it (it’s the verbal that counts, not the written).  So, if I were writing Please in Spanish, I would write it as Por Fa-Vore so I’d know how to pronounce it.  

I typically use Google translate so I can hear it over and over again.  Once I get those phrases written down, I try to just run through them in my head over and over so they’ll come quickly and naturally when the time comes.  I don’t try to overload my list and just keep it to short quick phrases because otherwise you won’t use them.  

It’s been my experience that people appreciate the fact that you’re making an honest effort.  You’re going to stand out and it’s going to be obvious to the other person that you aren’t a local.  But if you make an effort, they’re more willing to help.  

Use Apps 

Look there are some amazing apps out there that are free to use.  Use them. Google translate is probably the easiest because you can download the language and use it offline but there are multiple apps like Papago and iTranslate Voice as well as others.  The point is to have something, anything that’ll help you to communicate.  

My one caveat to all this is to only use the app to translate words and very simple phrases.  Don’t use idioms because it’s been my experience that the app will translate the phrase exactly without understanding the saying.  

Another piece of advice is not to use speech translating apps.  If you’re speaking into your phone, you’ll tend to use idioms and the apps just can’t differentiate between what you’re technically saying from what you mean to say.  

I remember one time where I was transiting through JFK and as I was transiting to a different terminal, I was stopped by a tourist speaking Mandarin.  Now, being Asian, I’m sure this woman took her chances with me and started speaking to me hoping I understood her. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.  So, she whipped out her phone and started speaking into her phone to translate what she was saying. Unfortunately, she was speaking in idioms so when I was reading the screen to see what she was asking, it didn’t make any sense at all.  Now I don’t know how much better these translation apps have gotten over the years, but in my experience, it just becomes more confusing the more you say. If you can get your point across in one word, that’s the best way.  

So, what I do is use very simple words that I hope the other person will understand.  I don’t ask “may I use your restroom?” because that might get lost in translation. Instead, I’ll just say “toilet?”  If I’m at a restaurant, I won’t ask “do you have a recommendation?” but instead just ask “recommend?” In that case, I’ll just type of recommend in Google Translate and let the person decide for me.  Usually, they won’t recommend something that’s too far out there in terms of food because they want you to enjoy it and they don’t know your likes or dislikes. For me, it usually comes up to some sort of chicken dish and I’m ok with that.  

Speak slowly with small words

closed gate door

Now this is a two way street.  Not only do you need to speak slowly but you need to somehow convey that you need them to speak slowly as well.  This obviously only works if you either know a little bit of their language or you assume they know some English.  It’s worth a try but if neither of you understands any of the other’s language, it’s a lost cause.  

Even if you’re fluent in the language, it can be difficult to understand someone if they’re speaking quickly or mumbling their words.  Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with an auctioneer who’s mumbling? That’s pretty much how you sound to the other person when you don’t speak the language, speak at your regular speed, and don’t speak clearly.  

Another thing to keep in mind is to try to speak in small, simple words.  Monosyllabic if possible. You have to think of it from their perspective.  If you start speaking in long, technical words, your chances of that person understanding you would diminish significantly.  And the same goes for them as well. You might understand some small words but if they were to start speaking in large technical words, there’s no chance of you understanding what’s being said.  

So how do you get them to speak slowly?  I lead by example. I will speak clearly and slowly first to see if there is any chance of being understood.  Hopefully some small lightbulb will go off for one of you and you can then exchange the info you need.  

Try another language

If you know multiple languages, it’s worth a shot to try communicating in every language you know or partially know.  Again, the main focus is to get your point across so if you’re familiar with a few words or phrases, it’s definitely worth a shot.  

You might be surprised how many people know multiple languages around the world.  It’s actually kind of interesting how far it might get you sometimes.  

When I was in Paris, my French was atrocious and it only got me so far. Now, it still allowed me to get around but it wasn’t easy (especially because I didn’t travel with a phone back then). However, I had no idea that there is a sizable Japanese community in Paris.  Not only did I meet some Japanese locals but they even took me under their wing, showed me around a bit, and we even hung out or a couple nights before I left. It was actually pretty neat. When we were stopped by some American tourists, it was interesting because I acted as a translator of English to Japanese while my new friends would translate it from Japanese to French.  It was reminiscent of the “I Love Lucy” episode.

My point is, you never know what language the other person might speak and if you’re really in a bind, you should be willing to use whatever means necessary to communicate.  Especially when visiting countries that were former colonies of other countries, you might be surprised as to how many different languages they speak. Also, if you’re in a large city, you’re more than likely not going to have any issues as all since major cities are also major business centers where people from across the globe come to work.  

Mime or Charades

This will come more easily to some than others.  But basically, if you tend to use a lot of hand gestures when you speak, you’ll probably be alright.  Look, we’ve all see the mime trapped in an invisible box or playing tug of war. The mime doesn’t say anything but you know exactly what they’re doing.  That said, think about what you need to do to convey your thoughts. If you’re hungry, make a motion like eating an imaginary sandwich. Need to know the time?  Point to an imaginary watch.  

There have been times where I’m sure I’ve looked like I was trying to guide a plane at an airport.  I’m sure I looked ridiculous, stupid, and childish. But it doesn’t matter. It’s about getting your point across and usually by the end of it, I’m usually laughing hysterically along with my new friends.  If you enjoy playing charades, think of it like that but with strangers. Turn it into a game and you might become less self conscious about it and just own it.  

Draw 

You can have the drawing ability of a newborn.  It doesn’t matter. Just do a quick sketch of whatever it is.  

I usually keep a small notebook with me so I can take notes when I’m traveling.  Usually it’s about where I need to go or some reminder of something to do. Other times, it’s to keep my thoughts in order while I have nothing to do and don’t have my laptop with me like if I’m traveling on a train or bus.  But I use it to draw pictures when I need to ask something and I just don’t know how else to do it.  

two person writing on paper on brown wooden table

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that everything I draw looks like I drew it with a left foot.  But it just has to be good enough. Obviously if you’re drawing a train, you just need a row of rectangles with small circles on two parallel lines.  It isn’t going to framed and hung at the Louvre but it’ll certainly be easy to understand.  

This might sound unnecessary but what would you do if your phone died?  It’s all happened to us at some point and if that happens, you’ll need to figure out something else.  It’s nice to have a backup plan and I think there are some instances where it’s easier to draw something vs. acting it out.  I don’t know how you can act out looking for a train station.  

Don’t be the ugly American 

If there is one thing you should never be is the ugly American.  That’s the tourist in a foreign country who can’t understand why no one speaks English and why it’s everyone else’s fault for not being understood.  So, their solution to this problem is basically speak slower and louder. I really don’t know why they think this’ll work but it never fails to amaze me.  What on earth made this person think that they would suddenly have an epiphany and realize they actually speak English is beyond me.  

Whenever I see this, it just makes me cringe.  If someone were to say the same thing over and over to you in a language you don’t understand and the only thing the other person did to make you understand was to speak slowly and shout in your face, would that help at all?  No. Just don’t be the ugly American. Just don’t.

Final thoughts

Communication is key to travel but it’s also incredibly intimidating and scary when you don’t speak the language at all.  But it’s important to understand that there are many different ways to communicate. Use whatever resources you have to make yourself understood if that means using an app, miming, or just using whatever words you know to get your point across.  

The main thing to remember is that communicating isn’t about being perfect.  It doesn’t matter if you’re grammatically correct or pronouncing the words correctly.  The only important thing is to get your point across and to be understood. It doesn’t matter how.  If you get bogged down in the details, you’ll be too intimidated to do anything and you’ll probably spend your entire trip eating in the hotel and never meeting anyone interesting.  That defeats the entire purpose of traveling.


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