March 24 2014

Overcoming the Language Barrier

When visiting the Cathedral of Monaco, you can walk behind the altar and view the final resting place of generations of Monaco’s royal family. As an American, I was most interested to see the tomb of Grace Kelly, wife of one of Monaco’s longest-ruling monarchs.

Some of the tombs were adorned with a small bouquet or two, presumably left by tourists. However, the tomb of Princess Grace was bedecked in flowers and tributes.


It was an ordinary day, not her birthday or another important date. Yet even the tomb of her husband – the actual monarch – looked downright austere next to hers.


Although American-born, she was a well-loved figure around the world, so the tribute was not surprising. But it didn’t serve to contain my ethnocentrism either. Even on another continent, amid the tombs of generations upon generations of the local country’s monarchs, things appeared to revolve around the sole American’s tomb.

Indeed, after many other similar experiences, I’ve unfortunately developed an expectation that things revolve around us Americans. I mean, why bother to learn another language when ours is the universal standard? (Although I’m pretttty sure that even English originated in England and not the United States.)

So imagine my dismay when I encountered a non-English speaker in a context where I “expected” everyone to speak English. I can’t even remember the country — it may have been Greece; it definitely was a country whose language I don’t speak. I was inquiring about a VAT refund. The woman behind the desk did not seem to understand my questions, though they were delivered in well-enunciated English, and she certainly did not answer them coherently. Eventually overcome with frustration, I left in disgust.

How utterly embarrassing to admit that only in retrospect did I see what an ethnocentric snob I had been. I, a foreigner in someone else’s country, was disgusted that she didn’t speak my language!

So the moral of the story…don’t be an entitled snob like me. When traveling, anticipate that not everyone in a foreign (to you) country will speak your language.

Which finally brings me to the point of this post! Below are some tips for overcoming language barriers when traveling.

Use Technology

  • Download a translation app to your smartphone or tablet. I like Google Translate – you input a phrase in one language, and it provides both a written and spoken a translation in another. A drawback, however, is that it works best online. You can save (“star”) phrases for offline use, but that’s not necessarily helpful on the fly. There are many other apps available, some of which work offline, so check out the options and see what suits you.
  • A low-tech alternative is to carry a dictionary and point to words in it to communicate. I personally wouldn’t do this as I can’t imagine lugging around a book, but it works for some. (Do yourself a favor and make it a pocket-sized one!)

Stick to the Basics

  • Use basic vocabulary. “Toilet” is more universally recognized and less subject to interpretation than “powder room” or even “restroom.”
  • Likewise, avoid idioms. “How long will it take for the medication to kick in?” makes perfect sense to a fluent English speaker, but someone less fluent may literally translate “kick” and be confused.
  • Write it out. People often understand a written message better than a spoken one. And while they may be pronounced very differently, in written form many words look similar across languages.
  • Seek out young-ish locals. Not being ageist; just sharing my general observation that foreigners under 30 are more likely to speak English.
  • Before struggling to communicate in another language, just ask the person if they speak English. If I initiate communication in my (broken) Spanish, the other person will likely continue in Spanish even if they’re English-fluent.

Plan Ahead

  • Snag a few business cards from your hotel’s front desk. Hand them to taxi drivers in place of struggling to explain where you wish to go.
  • Likewise, ask your hotel concierge to write out the day’s intended destinations in the local language. Show it to taxi drivers as you go from place to place, or to locals when seeking directions.
  • Learn a few key phrases. A little effort goes a long way with locals, and it’s not hard to memorize how to say yes, no, hello, excuse me, and thank you in another language.

And a “Don’t”

  • Don’t simply talk louder in hopes of being understood. The person’s not deaf, they just don’t understand you. To them, yours is the foreign language.

What did I miss? Feel free to share your own tips in the comments so others can benefit.

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Posted March 24, 2014 by Admin in category "Destinations", "Tips

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