Language can be a tricky thing. It can break down cultural barriers or it can just as easily build them, tall and wide. It’s something deeply embedded in cultures, as much as history and tradition. Learning a new language therefore is like examining a new culture up close. For this reason, the most challenging thing travellers face in foreign places often involve language in some way.
But we’ll all benefit from bridging communication gaps whenever and wherever we travel. Once crossed, these language barriers stop becoming personal ones on our journeys. Let’s go over a few ways we can try to do just that!
7 tips to help you overcome language barriers
Besides the obvious choice of signing up for language classes in town, here are other ways for people to ensure that things don’t get lost in translation while travelling:
- Before arriving at your destination, study some basic phrases in the local language or dialect if it’s different from your native one. Not only will it help you get around better on your own, but it also demonstrates respect on your part whenever you interact with locals. It shows you took the time and effort to learn their language, however basic your skills may be.
- Utilize technology to communicate (more on this later), but also pack a few analogue tools in case technology fails you. Your mobile device might get lost or stolen, your battery might die, or there simply might be no Wi-Fi signal available—a pocket dictionary or phrase book, a map with directions, or a small print-out of emergency phrases to safekeep inside your wallet can be helpful if you ever get lost or find yourself in a sticky situation.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. When out in public places, familiarize yourself with road, street and shop signs, and try listening in to casual conversations taking place around you. This helps train your eyes to seek visual cues and your ears to discern idiosyncrasies in speech like accents and inflections of voice.
- Participate in some form of language exchange abroad or at home. It can be a one-on-one dynamic, or something as informal as sharing a conversation with a small group over a meal or some drinks. Even with cultural and language barriers present, people often find some common ground in food and drink. It’s also a good way to befriend locals and learn cultural tidbits. Likewise, being locals yourselves, try and be extra helpful to international students studying English or French here in Canada. After all, language is a two-way street!
- Be mindful of what you say through body language. People’s facial expressions and gestures can speak volumes in conversations. It’s best to do some prior research about how certain cultures interpret specific types of non-verbal communication. A smile, for example, though one of the most universal expressions out there, may or may not be appropriate to make, depending on the situation.
- Whenever you’re stuck, rely on your communicative instincts. Try to find creative ways to communicate with locals: if you have a pen and paper, doodle instead of write. If you have free hands, gesticulate your way through an entire conversation. People will generally make educated guesses based on whatever you’re trying to get across, so there’s no harm in trying!
- Don’t be shy! A person guilty of violating grammatical rules or possessing the most incomprehensible accent is still doing a better job communicating than someone who keeps silent, out of a fear of being shamed or ridiculed for their linguistic inadequacies.
Technology, the modern interpreter
It’s funny to think about how many missed conversations and connections we’ve had in the past due to language barriers, only to realize how many of us have portable personal translators sitting right in our pockets. There’s an ever-growing number of apps that will turn our mobile devices into helpful little language instructors or real-time text and speech translators, and even ones that translate linguistic characters simply with a camera phone.
The most obvious product is Google Translate, one of several Google apps and features that are useful for savvy travellers. In June 2018, the company claimed that it translates over 143 billion words every day for users worldwide—that’s a staggering amount of language being exchanged! Other widely-used apps include iTranslate, which works like Google Translate with more features and TripLingo, which gives users a well-rounded set of learning tools that beyond language (e.g., culture notes, safety tools and even a tip calculator).
Those travelling to Japan, Korea or China will find Waygo an indispensable app that translates characters—especially helpful for understanding signs and menus. This is especially helpful for vegetarian and vegan travellers when eating out in unfamiliar territory, or for people with food allergies. And then there are popular ones like Duolingo or memrise both of which make language-learning engaging (and even fun) for the student.
There’s also innovative portable and wearable technology that translate on-the-go. These gadgets differ from most apps found on mobile devices in terms of functionality, as the goal is to facilitate real-time translation to make conversations between parties as seamless as possible. You can check out the pioneering Pilot earbuds or the upcoming sleek Aibuds. You can also use handheld translators like Japan’s ili or the pocket-sized Travis, based out of the Netherlands to act as intermediaries between you and others.
Learning new languages the old-fashioned way
Throwing yourself into the deep end by temporarily (or permanently, if that’s your goal) moving to a place where the language you’re trying to learn is locally-spoken, is probably the best way to learn it. But those of us who don’t have the resources to stay abroad for an extended period can do the next best thing: cultivate some sense of language immersion, even back home.
Adding pop-culture into the mix makes language learning more enjoyable and relevant, by pairing it with our personal interests. Watching foreign films and tv shows (without subtitles, if you want to dial up the difficulty), listening to foreign music, radio stations or podcasts, and reading books in foreign languages will reinforce and contextualize what you’ve already learned or are in the process of learning.
Even with all the modern tools and resources within reach, there’s just no proper substitute for learning a language the time-tested, old-fashioned way: by conversing in it. Sometimes, the solution is as simple as finding the right person to talk to. Barring the occasional mental lapses, the Wernicke’s area—that part of our brain typically linked to speech and language development—is, after all, often more reliable than shoddy Wi-Fi access!