The 80-year-old French lady is looking puzzled. She is not speaking one word of English. We are smiling. We don’t speak one word of French. Because we decided to learn Latin at school when we were 12. Shit happens. Unfortunately the bin in our apartment is flowing over and we are trying to find out where to empty it. That’s a problem not even a university-entrance diploma can help with.
Are you scared of traveling a certain country because of language barriers? Are you worried that you will disgrace yourself or be completely lost? Here you’ll find encouragement, hacks and many things to laugh about. You’ll see – there is nothing you have to worry about!
I was 14 years old when I went out of Germany with my parents for the first time. My mom and dad were usually great fans of the German North Sea and cows in Bavaria. But now we were visiting Portugal. I clutched at a green dictionary published by PONS. Portuguese – German. German – Portuguese. It didn’t work in any direction. I memorized some sentences that were published on the back of the book and seemed to be useful in everyday life. Words like instant coffee. But I was running out of water. A Portuguese guy was looking at me. I did know the words for “Where is the bus?” only seconds before, didn’t I? Well, the only thing that was left in my brain was PONS. Boom.
It usually doesn’t make sense to memorize specific phrases for a conversation. Most of the time you won’t understand the answer anyway. So sometimes talk is silver and pictures are golden. It’s easy to communicate by using a visual dictionary. You’ll find pictures of food, clothes and even moods in there. Those books are using simple drawings or pictures you can point to. They are also available from PONS. But let’s not talk about my childhood trauma anymore.
You can also simply use a pad and a pen. Put both things into your backpack and if you need to ask or explain something you can draw it. You can also write down names of places or stations you would like to visit. Sometimes also a touristic map can help. Before you start off, mark the spots you would like to see. When you meet locals on the street just point to the marked beach or cathedral on the map and you usually get at least a hint for finding the next bus stop or a slightly right direction without speaking much.
Today nearly everyone has got a Smartphone. So you don’t need to unfold a paper that’s blown away by the next incoming train. You don’t even need data on your phone. Just download some maps of your destination at home. There are offline maps available from Google Maps. My favorite one is called maps.me. It’s so detailed that you can even locate public trash cans and park benches. It saved my life in the middle of the desert of Nevada as well as in the middle of 1,000.000 people in Tokyo.
If you would like to eat or buy certain stuff you can download pictures of those things in your lodging and show them to the people in the restaurant or shop later.
When you are traveling without foreign language skills via vacation rentals, Airbnb or Couchsurfing (same applies to hotels) you can check out at home if your host is able to speak English, Italian, Chinese or whatever you need. When they are speaking your native language they can probably help you easily if you’ve got questions or need an interpreter. Even by looking for Airbnbs in Japan we found hosts speaking German!
When our English-speaking host met us in Kyoto she told us about a nostalgic and romantic railway close to the area. But I think I must have looked a little too euphoric because later she added to her nice review that my best friend and I had been a very lovely couple.
By speaking of Japan. Now you might think: Help, I can’t even read and look-up these words! Overkill deluxe! I thought the same before I went there. But in the big cities nearly every sign is written in Japanese and English. You won’t be able miss out signs saying “exit” or “supermarket”. And even if you are not that familiar with English your PONS will now help you again. Boom!
By the way: My grandparents loved to travel around Europe. But they could barely speak English. One day my rebellious grandma had to go to a hospital in Spain. After some hours she was feeling better and all she did was shouting “I go home!”
Even when they were 80 years old, they still traveled to Greece. You should know that in Greece they also have different looking letters. So my grandparents started to count the letters on signs in stations and on the road. And sometimes they memorized a fancy looking character. They never got lost!
Moreover, there are apps that help you scanning characters. You simply take a picture of them and receive a translation. They sometimes do not work very well. But once I could find out about the chocolate in my roll. It was purée made out of beans …
Also, gestures can be super helpful. Sounds simple but works very well. Tough you should check out the meaning of different gestures in different countries and cultures before you go on your trip. In Bulgaria people are nodding by meaning “no”. In some Arabic countries you should not hold your thumb up to say “okay” because there it means to give someone the bird. (If that has happened you better run by shouting “I go home!”)
We got rid of our trash in France by indicating scrunched paper and by pretending to throw it virtually away. After that the lady understood very well and showed us the garbage container in the basement. Strike!
And now the most important thing about language barriers on a trip: Laugh out loud and don’t be shy! You don’t need to be ashamed of spelling words wrong or forgetting about some vocabulary. I’m a German native speaker and I’m also writing this blog in English. I know it’s not perfect. But it doesn’t have to be! Because I simply love the English language, I have many friends in the US and I want to share my ideas and inspiration with people all over the world. And just imagine you’ll spot a couple from a different country with backpacks and sunglasses at your railroad station. What if they hand you a map by looking puzzled and insecure. Would you laugh about them? I don’t think so. So be brave! Don’t worry. Not speaking a foreign language is bad? It’s even worse to stay at home because of that!