Language Barriers On Your Journey article
I have been fortunate enough to live abroad twice: one in Ireland and once in the United Kingdom. I was studying both times (I did a semester abroad as an undergraduate in London, and I received a master’s in Ireland), and even luckier, both were English-speaking countries. This was of the utmost importance to me, because I do not speak any other language very well. I have decent Spanish and poor French, but not enough of either language to really survive, and survive well, in a Spanish- or French-speaking country.
So while there were no language barriers in the actual locations in which I was living, of course I wanted to leave those shores occasionally and take weekend trips to the continent. The first trip I took in London was with a group of five other friends, and we went to Amsterdam. Upon someone’s point that none of us spoke Dutch, our friend Tim replied, “It’s a Western European country. They’ll all speak English.” Naively, incredibly, arrogantly, this was actually how we approached our first trip to a non-English speaking country.
We landed at Schiphol airport to discover quickly that, while people might speak English, they far preferred speaking Dutch. And of course, this was quite reasonable; this was their country, we were visitors, we should at least try to make an effort. Someone had had the foresight to bring along a small Dutch-English dictionary, and we spent four days in Amsterdam smiling, miming, and sounding out the words in our dictionary. This often ended in laughter and the Dutch person simply switching into English, but we left Amsterdam feeling a bit humiliated and shamed. We should have made more of an effort to overcome the language barrier, we felt. Why hadn’t we?
We took that lesson to heart when planning future trips. For spring break, I traveled through Italy with my friends Christina and Katie. We bought a phrasebook weeks in advance, spent our time sounding out the basic words and sentences we might need, and even trying to learn a little grammar so that we could put together a sentence on the spot if needed. It was certainly extremely basic Italian, bordering on pidgin Italian, but we really gave it a valiant effort.
And it paid off. The instant we landed in Venice and were able to communicate in short sentences comprised of monosyllabic words, we already felt more at ease than we had in Amsterdam with our smiling and our pointing. My friend Christina spoke very good Spanish, and Italian’s basic similarity to Spanish helped her out a great deal, but even Katie and I were able to get in on the game. This drove home for me perhaps the most important lesson about overcoming language barriers in other countries: practice and be prepared. While everything technically went fine in Amsterdam – and by that, I mean no one died, no one yelled at us, we got back to London in one piece – Italy was by far a more enjoyable experience because we could communicate much more clearly, and the locals saw that, picked up on it, and genuinely appreciated it.
Italy was also the site of another key lesson I learned about overcoming language barriers – use absolutely every resource at your disposal. One day, Christina and I decided we wanted to go see some catacombs, or ancient underground burial places. There were some catacombs in the city that were hugely popular and big tourist magnets, but we had friends who had studied abroad in Rome, and they told us about a small, out of the way, intimate catacomb complex run by a convent. They assured us it was the way to go. They told us we could wait for up to three hours for a massive tour of 50 people at the tourist catacombs, and that they had never waited and never been in a group of more than ten at the convent catacombs. We decided it was well worth our while.
The catacombs were just as our friends had promised: off the beaten track and in a working-class Roman neighborhood. We pulled a bell to alert the nuns that they had visitors, and when one came to the door, we attempted to explain to her in our broken Italian what we were there for and what we wanted. Speaking slowly and with no small amount of hand gestures, she communicated to us that there was only one nun there that day who had been trained to lead tours. There was only one problem – that nun was French, and spoke only French. No English. No Italian. No Spanish. Could we understand French? Did we still want to take the tour? No one was available to translate, she apologized, and she certainly understood if we wanted to back out.
For obvious reasons, this gave Christina and I pause. My French was not nearly good enough to be able to follow a tour guide’s speech. We had really wanted to see the catacombs. They were on our list of “must-see” Roman attractions. But was it worth going on a tour when we couldn’t understand what our guide was saying? It would be cool to just be in the catacombs, we thought, but we wanted to know facts about them. That would be hard if the nun’s only language was one we genuinely couldn’t understand.
As we were debating, a couple with a small child came up behind us. Smiling and speaking broken Italian, they communicated to the nun what we had – that they would like a tour of the catacombs. The nun explained to them, as she had to us, the inherent predicament at work. The man smiled broadly. “Oh, that is no problem. I am Spanish, but my wife is French. She will translate for me.”
Christina’s ears perked up at this. “I wonder…”
She approached the man and said in rapid Spanish I could just barely follow, “Hello, sir. My friend and I are Americans, but we both speak Spanish, although mine is better than hers. Neither of us speak any French. We would like to take this tour, and we were wondering if you would be so kind as to let me listen to your wife’s translation of the French into Spanish. Then, if my friend cannot follow along, I can translate into English for her. Would you be all right with that?”
“Of course,” the man replied. “We are looking forward to it.”
And thus began one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Every stop on the tour, the nun would speak in French, the man’s wife would nod along, translate it into Spanish for her husband, and Christina would translate it into English for me. Although the facts and the knowledge took quite a long time to trickle down to me, I couldn’t get over how clever Christina had been. She had used every single resource at her disposal – her knowledge of Spanish, the woman’s knowledge of French – to ensure that the language barrier could be overcome.
The language barrier, of course, is only amplified when you are in country where you cannot figure out any common ground. My limited knowledge of Spanish and French did not serve me very well when I traveled with my sister, Maggie, to Istanbul, Turkey. My sister speaks almost-fluent Arabic, but that was of no use in a country that spoke Turkish. Finding someone who spoke Spanish, French, or English was close to impossible in this city, and my sister’s Arabic only was useful in extremely specific circles. This was the toughest language barrier yet to overcome. We had a Turkish-English dictionary, but the sounds were so foreign to us that when we tried to produce them, people usually just stared at us in bewilderment.
Then, Maggie hit upon a fantastic solution. Although most people in Istanbul did not actually speak Arabic, a great many people in the city knew some formal Arabic from the mosque, much as Maggie and I knew some formal Latin from attending Catholic Mass most of our lives. What if, she suggested, she approach people with an Arabic phrase they might recognize from religious services? That would hopefully build some sort of rapport, and they would then be more willing to listen to us use our pathetic Turkish. They would not grow impatient so quickly, she thought, if they had some sort of reason to believe we really were trying.
I was certainly open to the suggestion, so the next time we went out into the city, I let Maggie take the lead. She greeted our waiter at a restaurant with a phrase from the mosque, and his eyes widened in surprise and delight. He then spoke in rapid Turkish at her, and Maggie smiled sheepishly. “Ahh… no Turkish,” she said, in her limited Turkish. “But…” she turned the pages of her phrasebook rapidly, “We… would… like… a… table… for…two.”
Had we tried that even the day before, the waiter would have grown impatient quickly. However, because Maggie had established some common ground with him with the Arabic phrase, he listened patiently and courteously. It had worked!
My biggest takeaways from these experiences on how to overcome the language barrier are as follows:
- Try. Make a genuine effort. Be courteous. The person on the other end of your interaction will, most likely, notice your effort and appreciate your attitude. This is the number one most important thing. Everything else follows from your willingness to do this.
- Don’t be arrogant and assume, as we did in Amsterdam, that people will speak English or bend over backwards to help you. You are a guest in a foreign country. You should bend over backwards to communicate with the locals, not the other way around.
- Learn some of the language. You certainly don’t have to be fluent in French if you plan to spend a week in Paris, but spend some time before your trip boning up. Learn basic phrases, but also learn some grammar and some useful nouns and verbs. That way, you can put together a sentence on the fly and not sound like a robot repeating rote phrases.
- Use every single resource at your disposal. Who knew Christina’s Spanish would come in handy in Rome? Who knew Maggie’s Arabic would be useful in a city where the people spoke Turkish? No one, ahead of time. But by being flexible and creative, these two were able to pinpoint things that might be useful to them, and helped us create an intimate and enriching experience.
These four tips will serve you well in almost any situation. I don’t promise that there won’t be misunderstandings, or that you won’t encounter some rude people who refuse to engage with you because you don’t speak their language perfectly. However, these rules of thumb will go a long way to ensuring that you have a pleasant and rewarding experience in any country where you might face a language barrier.
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