Updated: Mar 1
Navigating life in a foreign World
Communication is a BIG topic to tackle. There are so many factors that come into play here when deciding how much effort you should put into learning a new language.
I want to be very clear from the start, you should NOT let language barriers keep you from traveling anywhere!
If you have a certain type of passport, and the ability to travel, you already have so many good fortunes on your side to explore most of the world! So please don't let spoken word be your deterrent.
That being said, communicating with words, especially for details like directions, is very helpful. But words can be deceiving too. For example, in some cultures, you might ask someone for directions, and whether or not they fully understand what you are asking for, they will give you an answer. 10 blocks of walking later you will learn your destination is in the opposite direction. This happened to me all the time. So, yes, words are great, but words can be misleading too. Even when you speak the same language, how often do we misunderstand each other?
There are a lot of factors to communication, such as tone of voice and body language. What makes communication even more fascinating, is that body language and tone can have different interpretations cross culturally.
Let's keep this straight forward
One of the first things to consider is how long do you plan to be in that country(ies)?
What will you be doing there?
Do you have dietary restrictions?
No matter how difficult the language or how long my trip is, I always try to learn the very basics: Hello, thank you, yes, no, please, where is the bathroom?, water?
The local people will respect you more for trying and if you speak english, you might be surprised how many people can engage in basic conversation with you and eagerly want to practice english with you.
When I'm staying in a country for more than a couple weeks, and I know I will be engaging with local people to buy produce or to organize a mural, then I make the extra effort to learn the words for food, numbers, asking what your name is, where you are from, bartering language etc...
If you have dietary restrictions I highly recommend knowing how to explain it in detail. Or you can type it into a translator and keep it on your phone or on a piece of paper and show it to the cook.
I haven't had the best of luck with google translator while on the go. I typically do not purchase a sim card in each country when I travel. I do in India, but I like to navigate without wifi whenever possible. Depending on where you are, the wifi could be really spotty so it's best not to rely on it.
Cuba and Ethiopia were two places on my journey where wifi is hardly available at all. Most countries I went to have very limited internet, for example youtube may be banned, or wikipedia may be unavailable, like in Turkey.
So my best advise is be self reliant! This will go far not only in your travels but in your life. Download map apps on your phone that do not require wifi. This way, even if you are a bit lost, you can still access a map of where you are and you won't have to rely on other people's directions. Maps.me and google maps both have offline options, you just have to download the map of each city when you do have a wifi connection.
In the maze-like markets of Morocco and India, kids and adults would try to get me lost so that they could charge me money to be my guide. My map apps couldn't always locate me because the trails in the old cities are so small and numerous.
Worst case just keep walking, don't look lost, and avoid being in this situation at night. I recommend getting to know your surroundings during the day and memorizing a route to access food for dinner time.
Another area where communication is valuable is not getting ripped off. Whenever I arrive in a new city and I'm not yet familiar with the currency exchange I take a whole day of observation. I notice what the locals pay at the fruit stand. I try to see if restaurants have 2 menus - one inflated menu for tourists and the local menu. I walk through the markets and pay attention to the value of everything from shirts to pineapples to get an idea of what things should cost.
Many countries are used to bartering and if you don't barter a little, they will either be offended or they just got 6 times more money out of you. You see, they don't know anything about you, only that you are a foreigner. They don't know if you are a budget traveler living off less than $30 a day or a tourist with a $500 a day budget. If they can get 6 times the value for a shirt, they will try, because just yesterday it worked on someone else.
I am aware that as a foreigner in some parts of the world, I will be expected to pay more for goods than a local person. And I am ok with this within reason.
A good rule of thumb is: offer what you are willing to pay and walk away if they disagree. If your offer is truly reasonable they will call you back and make a deal. The art of bartering is just that, an Art! It takes practice, especially when it isn't part of your culture at home.
You might be surprised how many conversations you can have with people that you share zero words in common. My most recent journey was 2.5 years long, I traveled to 22 countries, I spoke the language in 4 of them. I was lucky to grow up internationally and I speak french and english fluently. This was helpful for my travels in the USA, France, Australia and Morocco. My Spanish is a work in progress but having a french background helps.
The rest of the time I was speaking body language and often not speaking at all. It was exactly what I needed, to be an observer and learn to do so without judgement.
While in India, I met 3 holy men/psychics who all gave me similar advice. "Less talking, more seeing" and this would become my life for years.
I sat in circles, listening to beautiful languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Russian. I laughed when they laughed, I cried when they cried. We danced to the favorite local hits, we shared food from the same plates, we drank our weight in black tea.
Words held less and less meaning, valuable time was spent without them.
The thing about spending a lot of time with people you can't speak with verbally, is that time might pass slowly at first - you can't just talk each other's ears off.
Images are a great way to fill the time. I recommend having a designated album on your phone of pictures from home. Be mindful of what you have on your phone too - Make sure it is culturally appropriate.
By showing pictures, pointing and using your best charades gestures, you should be able to tell a decent story. My best friend and I met a woman on a bus who had never seen snow before and we showed her pictures of Colorado. She proceeded to ask us if snow was like ice cream and we had a really fun conversation for the rest of the trip. You just might blow someone's mind, and learn something about the local culture too!
Some people think the USA is one big Hollywood movie set, so I like to show pictures of our national parks, wild animals and the reality of life too.
When trying to act out your life story gets too exhausting, you can always resort to dancing, a yoga class, or drawing. Whatever your skills might be, share! And then learn a skill from your host too.
LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN ABOUT THE LOCAL CULTURE
That's the point of traveling isn't it? And learning about the local culture will help you with communication too! For example, I traveled by myself to Northern Vietnam. This is a remote territory that requires special permits. I was finding Vietnamese quite difficult as it is a language with 5 different tones, changing the tone of a word, changes its' meaning all together!
I was lucky to stay with a family friend in Hanoi who had been living in Vietnam for years. He explained to me that in Vietnamese culture, people address you differently if you are younger or older than them. So most of the time I could guess that people were asking my age because they needed to know how to address me. Then they usually wanted to know where I was from. So I learned how to say I'm 22 and from USA, and then the locals would chant OBAMA! OBAMA!
Those were good travel days!
There are many ways around language barriers. Sometimes language barriers are a blessing, not a curse. I'm glad I couldn't understand most of the cat calling in Cuba. I was able to blow past without going on a female rights rampage. Sometimes I went full force female rights speech, because at least from my body language, I could show that my boundaries were crossed.
Have boundaries! But understand how these can coexist with the local culture.
For example, you might not like getting starred at, but instead of yelling at everyone, try to understand it is part of the local culture and that is a fight you won't win. Read a book and try to move on.
People around the world generally all want the same things. We are curious beings, we love to laugh, share stories, food, enjoy a dance and music. Don't be afraid, be informed. Do what you can to learn about the common scams where you are going. Immerse yourself in the local flavors! Share your light with the world!
MORE SEEING, LESS TALKING
To many more stories,