Hitting The Language Barrier Hard When Travelling.

How to meet people and make friends when travelling solo

The language barrier is always a bit of a problem on any gap year, and learning a new foriegn language is not always easy, but as long as you make the effort and try, the language barrier can be overcome in more ways than you can imagine.

Languages are hard. Really hard. I’ve never had a knack for them and ever since my bombastic French teacher at school decided my head was better as target practice for her board rubber rather than as a repository for the knowledge she was trying to share, I’ve never really got the hang of learning or speaking a foreign tongue.

At least not properly anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I can utter a few phrases of a fair few languages, my German is passable – for a five year old at least – and after having a lifetime of martial arts teachers yelling at me in Japanese I can wrap my tongue around a few words in the land of the rising sun’s tongue too. Just about.

But I just can never get past that basic level. Languages are really bloody difficult and learning how to speak a new language is one of the hardest things to do! At least for me.

I know it’s generally a failing of the English education system that it’s always a surprise that pupils come out speaking basic English never mind another foreign language too, but sometimes it feels like someone is making languages hard to learn out of sheer spite.

I mean I have been to so many different countries that still seem to think that everything has a gender specific name despite the fact that most rational people realise that a table is an inanimate object and not denoted by masculine or feminine descriptors. What the hell is that about?

They do this on purpose of course, just to confuse native English speakers and so that they get to snicker at us under their breath when a big 6″2 bloke accidentally uses the feminine noun for spoon.

Despite this typically English handicap of struggling with languages, I do genuinely think that they are important. Essential, even. As someone who travels extensively and often, I always try and learn at least a little of the language wherever I go. Just the basics of course, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘where is’, ‘can I have’. It’s only polite. I mean simply repeating myself in English just in a louder, more shouty voice just isn’t cricket, is it?

Taking my own advice, on a recent trip through Spain I endeavored to practice my extremely basic Spanish and maybe even learn a little. I didn’t have much of a choice really, I wasn’t exactly staying in an Anglicised resort in Shagaluf or Benidorm where drunken English tourists outnumber the locals, I was travelling through cities such as Granada and Cordoba, seeing parts of Spain away from the clubs and full English breakfast crowd, and where not every local speaks English. So speaking at least some Spanish was an absolute necessity here.

And I was struggling.

So every time I checked into a hostel or needed directions, every time I asked for a drink or something to eat, I whipped out my trusty screenshot of handy local phrases and attempted to blag my way through the conversation.

This never ended well.

No matter how awesomely I thought I delivered my carefully crafted Spanish phrase, I received a reply in Spanish that was delivered faster than a hail of automatic rifle fire and left me looking even more confused and bewildered than I normally do! And let’s face it, my awesome delivery was about as far from awesome as you can actually get. What in my head sounded as smooth as Inigo Montoya delivering a chat up line inevitably ended up sounding like Basil Fawlty doing a bad Manuel impression. I swear at times I actually sounded positively racist!

All of this spectacularly awful Spanish practice culminated in the lady behind a tapas bar giving me such a look of amused pity at my butchered Spanish attempt before switching to flawless English anyway and gave me more tapas as a consolation for being so universally crap.

But at least I tried. And that is important.

Languages may be hard, but they also give you a far deeper connection to a place and its people, even when you are really, really bad at it, and trying to learn and speak the local language shows respect and courtesy to the people you are visiting on your travels.

Plus, extra tapas! So bonus!

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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10 comments on “Hitting The Language Barrier Hard When Travelling.
  1. Bill Chapman says:

    You might benefit from learning Esperanto.

    I have found Esperanto of a lot of use when travelling on my own, to get my bearings within a country. Esperanto may not be perfect, but I’ve used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job, serving as a unique common language on my travels in, for example, Armenia and Bulgaria.

  2. I loved reading this! So funny.

  3. Carol says:

    This is amazing! I am really enjoying your posts and I’m glad I found them, thank you,

  4. At least they spoke back to you when you asked questions. When I first began learning Spanish and tried to use it, people just stared at me when I tried to talk to them.

  5. Lucy Oglivie says:

    I love this! I am exactly the same when I travel! Glad its not just me!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty 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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