When I tell people I am going to a place that speaks another language, people invariably say, “Oh, so you speak Spanish?” Or, “I didn’t know you knew French.”  The truth of the matter is that I don’t know any spoken languages other than English.

I took American Sign Language in school, which was great, but doesn’t help me with traveling.  (Although I do know a few universal signs like “toilet.”  So if I ever have to go to the bathroom and am around a deaf person, they can help me out.)  There are challenges to going to a country where I don’t speak the language.  However, I’ve been in large cities where a lot of people speak English (such as Rome and Paris) and I’ve also been in some very small towns where no one speaks a lick of English (such as very small villages in Ecuador.)

Sometimes not knowing the language really can be a challenge.  When we went to Ecuador, our GPS lead us to the wrong town and we were driving around in circles.  We stopped to ask directions and no one understood us.  We would talk in English and they didn’t understand.  Then they would talk in Spanish, and we couldn’t understand.  All of us were at a loss.  Everyone there was very cordial and willing to help, but we just couldn’t make sense of anything.

Is this the road?  Seriously, we thought this was the road and found out that no, it’s exactly what you’d think it is: a cow pasture.
We ended up driving out of the small village and finding a town with internet.  When we got there, I used Google maps to try to find out how to get where we needed go.  Since I didn’t even know where we were, I read aloud from my phrase book “What is the street address?” to the woman at the counter and she wrote it down.  It was quite a stressful situation at the time, but really we managed our way through it.  It would have been a lot easier if we knew Spanish, but we survived.

When we finally arrived at another hotel later on in the trip, I had to ask someone at the counter where to park our car.  He didn’t speak any English, so we hopped on the desk computer and we used Google translation and each typed into it.  It worked out fine.  With today’s technology, it’s actually pretty easy.

I’ve managed to work my way through the issues, with a small phrase book and a smile.  Don’t worry if you can’t speak the language, if you learn some phrases and are willing to work hard at communication, you should have no problems.  Not speaking the language is definitely not a deal-breaker.

Here are a few tips that might get you through language barrier:

  1. Bring a phrase book.  A book that has simple words for transportation, food, hotels, etc., will help a great deal.
  2. Smile and point.  If you’re at a bakery or a restaurant, just point at what you want and smile.  I’ve been using this trick for years and people never seemed upset that I can’t pronounce what I want.  The smiling part is key.  
  3. Allow extra time when dealing with transportation issues.  You will have to read a lot of signs and find out where you are and decode things.  Be prepared for delays when you’re figuring things out.
  4. If you rent a car, research road signs ahead of time.  I can remember one time my husband was driving and I was riffling through my book trying to figure out what “ceda el paso” means.  Better to just do this research ahead of time before you get in an accident or get a ticket.
  5. Don’t immediately start speaking English.  You at least need to know the phrase “I don’t speak _____” in whatever language you’re communicating in.  It’s presumptuous and rude to just start speaking English.  Start with “no hablo espanol.” So they can see that you’re at least making an effort.  Nothing says, “I’m American, and everyone in the world should speak English, dangit,” like just walking up to someone and speaking to them in English.
  6. Just try.  It’s better to try and look silly, then to not try at all.  I always learn “hello” “goodbye,” “thank you,”  “good day,” and of course my coffee order, in the language of the country I’m visiting.  Those phrases have still stuck with me to this day.  I can order my coffee in Spanish, Italian and French.  (I should put that on my resume.)

Nina Thomas

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One comment

  • Berneo Alex May 14, 2015 on 5:54 PM Reply

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