Traveling in a foreign country just wouldn’t seem, well, foreign if communicating with the locals was as easy as it is back home. It may require patience, open-mindedness and respect. And sure, conversations can be frustrating, but they are also very interesting as you simplify your own language (or speak in a simple version of the local language) while your conversation partner strains to understand and answer your questions. The struggles of effective communication are what make doing almost anything in a foreign country that much more memorable. And if you know a few words (or more) in the local language, then you may just end up as the designated translator in your group.
If you are reading this now, you probably have a decent grasp of the English language. And this is the language which you will likely be able to find in all but the most remote regions if our world, even if it may be extremely rudimentary. Traveling in a country who’s language is unfamiliar to you does not mean that you need to take a language course before you embark. In fact, you don’t even need to look at much of the language before arriving in the country. All you really need to know are a few of the basics: yes, no, hello and good-bye, and be able to count up to around five. At least you will be able to order a few beers and get a room for the night. Add please and thank you to your language list and you will make conversing with the local residents easier. Anything else is a bonus.
The ability to speak even a little bit of the language will add to the enjoyment of your trip and will improve your relations with the local residents. It is a demonstration of respect and shows your willingness to reach out and make an effort. This is best combined with a polite smile and respect for the local greeting customs, such as a handshake or slight bow.
If your comprehension of local language proves not to be enough, you may resort to using pictures, symbols or objects, or simply combine these with what language skills you have. Pictures of a distinguishable building, museum or attraction may be enough to cross the language barrier. In fact, you don’t necessarily need actual photographs. You can draw pictures in the sand, in the air or even on a napkin, as long as it helps to get the communication moving.
Symbols are used in a similar fashion to road signs. They are very simple and represent a particular amenity or service. They can sometimes be found in a leaflet-type format in which there are pictured ten to twenty symbols. You simple show the person the leaflet and then point to the item of interest in hopes that they understand what it is.
Nonverbal communication is a very powerful medium when traveling primarily because it makes for an easy replacement for speaking. And simple gestures are a large part of this form of communication. Gestures vary greatly from country to country, and can easily be the source of slight misunderstanding or serious offences. Here are just a few gestures that get misused:
- Hand signals like the thumbs-up sign, although a positive symbol and used in hitch-hiking in North America and some other countries, are offensive in parts of the Middle East, where it means literally ‘Up your’s’.
- The circular ‘OK’ symbol (thumb and forefinger in a circle) is obscene in countries such as Turkey and France, indicating someone’s worth as ‘zero’ or ‘nothing’. In Greece, the ‘OK’ sign is a signal of a body orifice, so do not use this gesture here.
- In Thailand, touching someone’s head may seem innocent enough. But think twice. The gesture is a grave insult in the country where the top of the head is considered sacred.
- In Bulgaria and Albania, the gestures are so confusing that they could make your head spin: Nodding your head means no, while shaking it means yes.
- In Iran, you can sit with your legs crossed if you want to. But, be careful that the sole of your foot isn’t facing anyone, as this would be an insult.
- Men in Egypt tend to be more touch-oriented; thus a handshake may be accompanied by a gentle touching of your elbow with the other hand.
- Throughout most of the Middle East, the right hand only should be used for eating. It is the custom to reserve the left hand for bodily hygiene.
- In Iran, to signal ‘NO’, move your head up and back sharply. To signal ‘YES’, dip your head down with a slight turn.
- An Israeli insult is to point down at the upturned palm of one hand with the forefinger of the other hand, implying that “grass will grow on my hand” before the words of the speaker come true.
- An offensive gesture in England would be the V-for-victory sign done with your palm facing yourself.
- To express remorse or honesty in India, people will grasp their earlobes. This is a gesture used by servants when they are scolded.
- In Malaysia, when a person stands with their hands on their hips, this is a sign of anger.
Learning a Foreign Language
Learning a language can be a long and arduous task, and anyone who has studied in school knows that years in a classroom don’t automatically translate into language proficiency. Learning by immersion is far more effective and is increasingly feasible in an age when more and more people are traveling abroad.
Those who have traveled for an extended amount of time in a foreign country can attest to the fact that it takes more than merely spending time abroad to learn a language. It’s an ongoing and intentional process that gains momentum over time. After an initial investment of time and patience, travelers inevitably reap the rewards. The following are a few tips to keep in mind along the way.
Set goals for yourself: It’s important to remind yourself that there’s no fast-track to fluency. Learning a language takes time, but as you add new vocabulary and pick up new sentence structures you’ll find that you’re increasingly able to express yourself.
Learn a few stock phrases: Before you set out to mix with the native speakers, arm yourself with a few important phrases that will help you add new vocabulary along the way. “What is this called?” or “How do you say…?” are invaluable sentences and a lot more fun to use than a dictionary.
Spend time with the locals: Visit an expatriate community abroad and it won’t take you long to realize that living in another country isn’t synonymous with speaking the language. Seeking out people who understand what you’re saying and where you’re coming from may be comforting, but it can also slow down your learning process. Set aside some time each week for spending time with people who speak the language you’re trying to learn rather than the one you already know.
Take it easy on yourself: Remember that you aren’t trying to read classical literature in your target language. If you turn on a local television channel and it’s all gibberish to you, don’t lose heart. Speaking in real time with real people is a much more organic process, with room for error and plenty of give and take. Chances are the locals you’re practicing with will be impressed by your effort, let alone your abilities.
Limit your context: Trying too much too fast is discouraging, and one of the best ways to learn a language is to target a specific arena like the local market, the gas station or the corner restaurant. Think of all the questions you could ask in that particular place (as well as the questions they may ask you), and then practice when you’re there.
Take notes: Regardless of how much time you spend grappling with your sentence structure while hanging out with the locals, you won’t make much progress until you start to write things down. Something profound happens when you make a new connection, put it on paper and then look it over the next morning.