Lost In Translation.

language barriers

I am absolutely god awful at languages, I always have been. Despite being taught French at school, having Japanese practically beaten into me since childhood by my martial arts training and my extended stay in Germany which should have at least made some of the language stick through osmosis if nothing else, I am barely conversational in these languages! And I suspect that when I do speak to a native speaker of French, German or Japanese I actually sound like I am having a stroke when I attempt to ask for another drink or say hello.

Because of this complete mental block when it comes to learning a new language, I have always been in complete and utter awe of anyone who is bilingual, especially those people who seem to pick it up effortlessly and are practically fluent in a week or two! Okay, it’s more like jealousy than awe, but still.

Just a few words in another language can break down so many cultural barriers.

Despite this, I have always tried and make an effort to speak at the very least just a few of the basic phrases of whichever country I am travelling in. You know the ones, hello, goodbye, please, thank you, two beers please and can I have a kiss! The basics.

Seriously though I do truly believe it is so important just to make that effort, to try and learn a little of the language. Just a few words in another language can break down so many cultural barriers that stand in our way when we are attempting to explore new countries and meet new people.

When you first arrive in a new place, being surrounded by new sights, sounds and smells, cultures and practices that are completely different from what you are used to and with hardly anyone around you speaking a language you can understand can be difficult at first and lead to a certain measure of culture shock. It get’s easier, don’t worry, and in time you will learn to love all the things that were so initially disorientating. Language however is another thing entirely, how will you get by when noone speaks your language? How will you interact with anyone? Find your way around? It can even sometimes be a little isolating, being surrounded by people all speaking in a completely alien tongue.

But it doesn’t have to be. Breaking down that barrier is easier than you think. All you need to do is try. That’s it.

I truly think that by doing so you can not only escape looking like a complete tourist expecting a local to understand you if you just speak a little louder, but it can create an instant connection between you and the place you are visiting, it breaks down that barrier of tourist and local, even if it is just for a split second, because by using the local language – even in a limited way – when speaking to a local, it just shows a little bit of respect to your host country. Language acts as a gateway, it opens doors into the cultures we visit and allows for a much richer, deeper travelling experience.

Of course it also serves a practical purpose too of allowing us to navigate our way around much easier and getting rid of touts and scam artists! By far the most practical phrases to learn in any language I have ever come across are ‘no, thank you’ and ‘leave me alone, I work here’. That way the touts will run off after the next person who looks like a tourist!

Noone will expect you to be absolutely fluent in a relatively short time spent there, but your efforts will be appreciated. Don’t get me wrong if you are staying in a region or country for a length of time and happen to become relatively competent at the language then that is fantastic, but as long as you are making the effort and trying, then that will count for as much as being able to converse fluently. Learn those basic phrases, use a translator app to find specific key words if you need to ask for something specific, just make that effort!

I am not fluent by any stretch of the imagination, but by learning just a few key phrases at first and using them as often as possible, I have found that I have had very little trouble communicating no matter what country I am in. Okay, so like every other native English speaker I cheat a bit. English is spoken very widely around the world – especially in the more heavily touristy areas – and even in some of the most remote places there is usually someone who speaks a little English, but with a combination of broken phrases, hand gestures and good humour I have found that wherever I have travelled around the world I have never had much trouble communicating with anyone. Mostly this is because the locals take pity on me butchering their language and switch to English pretty quickly, but I like to think that most of the time at least the effort is appreciated even if the application was rubbish!

So when you set off on your round the world adventures, you don’t have to be a polyglot or be fluent in two dozen languages including Esperanto, all you need to do is make an effort. Learn a few phrases – as much as you can – because believe me even if it isn’t much the rewards you get will be more than worth it. 

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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10 comments on “Lost In Translation.
  1. Sha says:

    Totally agreed! Learning a language takes time and effort so I’ve taken to learning just the essentials when overseas. Gambatte ne!! 🙂

  2. hilarychapman says:

    If you’re looking for a language which is relatively easy yo learn, you might want to try Esperanto. I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala, Yerevan and Milan in this planned language.

    I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down and in Armenia when it was a Soviet republic, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend Esperanto, not as a hobby but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

  3. Milene says:

    You are absolutely right. I am one of those lucky people that does speak a few languages (5), however I always believe that it is due to the fact I’m Dutch. Being Dutch has its privilege in learning languages due to the fact that we learn languages from a young age, you will never find a Dutch speaking only one language! Most of us are fluent in Dutch, English and German from a very young age. Later on we learn French, Spanish and/or any other language.

    One word for you to know if you ever go to the Netherlands – GEZELLIG! (the G is the spitting-on-the-ground-throat-sound). Say that to a Dutch and you found yourself a new friend =)

    • You are so right, I think it is really important to learn languages from a young age, that is one of the many failings of the British educational system I think. Languages aren’t taught at primary schools at all and so often many of our European neighbours put Britain to shame on that count. I’m slightly jealous of you being fluent in so many languages! ;D Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Gezzellig! ;D

      • Milene says:

        I have many British friends who are complaining about that but hey you can do something about it =) Many English speaking people are also a little bit lazy cause ‘everyone speaks English anyway’ 😉 And that is partially true but I think it is also fun to learn another language and be able to understand the locals when they gossip about other people, it’s the excellent and maybe the only way to really blend in and become ‘one of them’, for as far as that’s possible =)

        Well you got your first Dutch word, the second is – HALLO! – (pronounced as: H – AH – LO)! Easy one!

  4. Great post and completely agree! Even if you try and make an effort to communicate with the locals in their language, it is highly appreciated and you put yourself above the typical tourist that expects everyone to know English. I’m lucky to grow up bilingual and I love learning languages but to put them to practical use is a lot harder than it looks. I’m still learning Spanish after a year and a half of living in Costa Rica but it gets easier over time and with practice.

  5. I absolutely agree! Even learning the basics, along with lots of charades and smiles :), greatly enhances your travelling experience. Locals see you’re making an effort and generally want to help you more – and you might even make some new friends out of it!

    • Exactly! I know that in my case at least that connection is one of pity as they see how much I butcher their language, but I think the effort is appreciated! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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