Speaking in Tongues: Overcoming the Language Barrier

By Annie Birkeland

France, Paris by Charlotte Kiaie, 'Untitled 2 ' - 2013 (ArtFranceGS).jpg
Photo by Charlotte Kiaie

One of the most daunting things about going to a foreign country can be trying to communicate with people who don’t speak your language.  Even if you choose to study in an English-speaking country chances are good that you will travel somewhere that people speak another language.

Here are some tips to help you out!

Yes, many people speak English- but not everyone

English is increasingly becoming a global lingua franca. Especially in big cities, international airports, and tourist hot spots, it’s widely used to communicate with basically everyone outside of the local population. It can be comforting to know that most places you can find people proficient in English who have a basic understanding and are able to communicate. So keep in mind that people may understand your English, even when you may be talking among friends and think no one knows what you’re saying (this is directed at you, Americans on the Paris metro, who didn’t realize that other passengers could understand what they were saying).

However, on the flip side, it’s not wise to assume that everyone speaks English, and you shouldn’t expect them to either. As a visitor, it’s up to you to be respectful and to make the effort to communicate with the people in your host country and not expect others to accommodate to you. People often sincerely appreciate when you make an effort to learn their language, even if you make mistakes and it’s not perfect.

Do your research beforehand

There are so many resources to learn languages these days — YouTube videos, tutorials, movies, TV, music, podcasts, books, websites — a myriad of ways to get exposure. Pick one, or a few

FRANCE, Paris - Niki Fochtman, 'Montmartre' - 2016.jpg
Photo by Niki Fochtman

mediums, and get a head start before you go. I particularly enjoy foreign music, a good podcast, and a small personal dictionary as resources.

Survival phrases and knowing how to ask polite questions is essential (although ideas of politeness can be culturally different). In France, for example, you always start with bonjour; it’s polite to greet someone before asking something of a stranger. ‘Please’, ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry,’ ‘no thanks,’ are always a good idea to know no matter where you go.  If you know that you will be doing certain activities like buying tickets, ordering food/drinks, or needing to go to the bathroom or getting lost and needing to ask for directions, it’s good to look those phrases up too. Another great one is always, do you speak english?

This might all seem painfully obvious, but I had experiences abroad where I sincerely wish I would have taken my advice. When I was traveling by myself I took an overnight bus from Greece to get to Istanbul, Turkey. It was an 8 hour trip and there was no bathroom on the bus, and no one that spoke English. Trying to ask for a bathroom break with zero Greek or Turkish knowledge was very difficult and awkward and not something that I would recommend.

Use your resources (technology!)

Google translate can be your friend. It’s a good tool for rapid, rough translations. It tends to be very literal which can be problematic for words that have multiple meanings or for idiomatic expressions (think: google translate let it go song or sirenas translation). I mostly use it to translate other languages into English to get the general gist of something.

When I want accuracy and actual reliable help, I use WordReference. It gives you full sentence examples in both English and the target language (including many romance languages and other major world languages). They give synonyms and different usages, idiomatic expressions, and lots of examples. There is also a tab for verb conjugations as well. As a language major, WordReference has been my lifeline. It is also super helpful because it includes slang and vocab that people actually use when they talk.

Old fashioned techniques can be helpful too

Write things down. I would not have been able to hitchhike around Iceland without writing down the names of my destinations and showing it to the drivers. Take pictures of important words, addresses, metro stops, streets, and hostels that you may not otherwise remember. Especially if the country uses a different alphabet. This is also a good strategy if you are ever in France, because many French words are absolutely not pronounced as you would assume from their written form.

FRANCE, Paris,Karlye Morren, Light is god light is art, 2016.jpg
Photo by Karlye Morren

Speaking the local language will make things easier

Life will simplify exponentially once you become proficient in the basics. Once I was able to understand what other people were saying and I was able to communicate my needs. I felt like I could finally enjoy being abroad. Small interactions like ordering food or buying things at the supermarket no longer felt like daunting, monumental tasks. My level of stress and anxiety calmed down once I became competent and confident in the language.

It’s also way more interesting to actually understand what people are saying around you and more fun to finally be able to get jokes. It is a humbling but rewarding experience to try and learn another language, and once you do you open yourself up to a whole new world of connections and experiences.





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