Travel Talk: Taking the Stress Out of Language Barriers

One of the first things someone might ask when you announce your trip to another country is, “Do you know the language?” Unless you’re visiting an ancestral homeland, are a language buff, or have learned foreign language(s) for your job or personal reasons, the answer will likely be no.  You may stress out over the thought of being unable to make your way around or communicate your needs during your trip.  The more this anxiety builds, the more pressure you could put on yourself to spend many hours learning a language – including nuances that you’re unlikely to need.
Unless you’re planning to spend an extended amount of time in a country, knowing the hundred or so “quick reference” words and phrases in a standard travel language book will usually be sufficient to get you around.  Focus on language concerning transportation, directions, obtaining assistance, and health and safety issues (such as the words for danger, caution, and hospital, as well as how to ask for an embassy or the police).  If this still doesn’t sound like enough, remember that there’s a reason that so many travel language books are sized to fit in your pocket.   You can look up phrases and words as you need them, without putting yourself through painful memorization exercises weeks before your trip.
Do You Speak English?     
This is an essential phrase to know in every language spoken in the places you’re visiting.  It manages your limited language skills while showing that you’re culturally sensitive enough to not just assume that someone speaks your language; it also helps break the ice.  If the person confirms that they speak English, then you’ve started off on the right foot; if they say no, then nod or apologize (think of how you feel when you dial the wrong phone number) and move on to someone else.  If you can’t move on to someone else, see how far you can get with numbers and gestures.  If you’re still struggling, then other employees or passersby are likely to notice, and chances are one of them will step in to help – if for no other reason than to show off their command of English.

A word of caution: if you have a rudimentary grasp of a foreign language and ask for directions or check into a hotel in that language, you need to be able to understand the person’s response.  The person might answer at a mile a minute, and you’ll either pretend to understand and move on, or ask for clarification in English – at which time the person will wonder (with some frustration) why you didn’t ask in English in the first place.  If you’re not proficient enough to go back and forth in conversation on a particular topic, then it’s usually best to ask Do you speak English? and go from there.

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Should I cross the street, or stay put and look out for the cute marshmallow doughboy? 

Most of us don’t get beyond learning a few written characters when touring places like Japan or China

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