This woman in Vietnam spoke neither English or Vietnamese. A good interpreter of the local language helped me find out that she was the tribal chief’s wife.
Not knowing the language should not prevent you from venturing abroad.
Even though it’s relatively easy to get by without learning the language of the country you’re visiting, there are a few things you can do that will help you over the language barrier, whether you’re traveling for business or leisure. Much of it is in the prep work prior to your departure.
1. Learn at least a few phrases. You’ll want to know the basics: please, thank you, hello and goodbye. While this seems like travel 101, many people leave home without learning these simple phrases in the local language. You’d be surprised at how far these can take you. The locals will greatly appreciate your efforts and you’ll feel more comfortable when you can respond appropriately with these simple words.
2. Listen and learn. Stop in at any bookstore and you’ll see the language section filled with audio programs. Listening to these will give your ears the chance to tune into the what the language sounds like before you leave – crucial to comprehending even simple words. Don’t be lured into buying the most expensive programs because you think they’re better. The key is in how much time you’re willing to spend listening and repeating. Sites like LiveMocha allow you to connect with native speakers and to practice for free!
3. Take a class. Whether you sign up for a class in your hometown or you study through an immersion course at your destination, this is a valuable way for you to learn and practice your pronunciation.
4. Carry a phrasebook. I have found myself sitting on a park bench, it could be Oaxaca or Hanoi, and someone will sit down and want to chat. They don’t speak English well and I don’t know their language but I can pull out my trusty phrasebook and we can begin to communicate. Even the smallest of phrasebooks will come in handy to begin a conversation.
5. Make it simple. When speaking to non-native English speakers who know some English, don’t speak LOUDER so that they’ll understand you. Instead, speak more simply and slower so that they can catch what you’re saying.
6. Hire an interpreter. This is particularly crucial for business travelers but applies to anyone who’s interested in a deeper understanding of the culture. Perhaps you’re spending the day visiting museums, an interpreter can help you to decipher the meanings of the art, history and people.
7. Use hand gestures. Traveling is not the time to get shy. Whip out those hands like a good Italian and express yourself by motioning what it is you need (perhaps with the exception of a toilet). You’re sure to make friends if you’re willing to put yourself out there a bit.
8. Visual aids. Kwikpoint makes a whole line of laminated booklets and foldout translators that allow you to point to drawings of what you need… food, taxi, phone, hotel room, etc. I love these little visuals for travelers. They also have specially designed options for medical and law enforcement.
Locals fully understand the importance of knowing some English so that they can take advantage of tourist dollars. As a traveler, there is some comfort to me in this fact but it still makes me a bit sad. I like the adventure of not knowing whether I’ll be able to properly communicate with the locals. I reach back into my days of charades, begin hand gesturing and have fun with those that don’t speak English.
Most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun, get to know the locals and let them laugh at and with you (they’ll do both).
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