Although I have traveled to four of the seven continents, I still only speak one language fluently – English, my mother tongue. I am a serial dabbler in languages (I can say good morning and thank you in seven different languages), but have never fully taken charge of learning to the conversationalist level. This might seem like a good reason to stay home and let my fear of getting lost in an unknown city keep me from seeing new places and meeting new people. However, in all my travels, I have only visited one English speaking country – Canada, and they are only half English speaking (plus it was Montreal, so it doesn’t really count). Whether I was in Senegal, France or the Dominican Republic, one thing I have learned is that most people you meet are welcoming and will typically go out of their way to help. But if you still need some reassurance, below are five tips that will help you knock out language barriers while traveling the world. 1. Learn a few key phrases Learning to say “hello”, “thank you”, “please”, “excuse me”, and maybe “I am lost.” People really warm up to you if they see you have made an effort to learn even the slightest bit of their language. You may also be surprised when they respond to you in English. 2. Be patient If you don’t understand, do not get frustrated. Stay patient and smile. Keeping your mood happy and upbeat makes a busy passerby more anxious to help you get to where you are going. 3. Don’t be afraid to look silly People will know you don’t speak the language, but don’t get offended if they chuckle at your pronunciation or correct your grammar. Remember you are learning, so the way you roll your R’s might sound a little funny to a native speaker. Feel free enough to laugh at yourself, but humble enough to learn from others. 4. Use gestures and body language There are universal signs that mean the same thing no matter where you visit. Smiling while nodding your head up and down to mean “yes” and looking perplexed while pointing to a sign with a train or car will easily help others decipher what you are saying. Also, saying “no” in a stern voice with a defiant look on your face will also get your point across in most, if not all, countries. 5. Practice, practice, practice and learn the customs Even if you still haven’t gotten a grip on specific words and phrases, getting comfortable with the customs will go a long way with locals. Read a few books, download apps and watch television in other languages to get familiar with cultural dos and don’ts. If all else fails, go anyway! Learning on the road can be the best teacher of all.
Have you decided not to venture off too far from home because of language barriers? Did you find this post helpful in overcoming that fear? What are some other fears keeping you from your travel dreams?
Let me know what your biggest fears are about seeing the world. Leave a comment below and we will tackle them in a future post.
This story was originally published 3 July 2012 on the Trotter website.