If you don't speak the language of the place you're going, you'll pay for it in more ways than just a few awkward moments. You'll lose valuable time, you'll likely be taken advantage of (financially), and you'll miss out on a lot experiences you could have had if it weren't for that invisible wall. Your ability to communicate is directly proportional to the quality of experience you have.
But don't fret if you don't remember a lick of that language you "studied" in school. Luckily for you, I've spent countless hours observing cultural norms and universal commonalities. I've also failed at communicating (a.k.a. successfully learned how not to communicate) thousands of times, so you don't have to! At least not as much.
So pay attention to these tips and you'll be surprised how far they can get you in terms of respect from foreigners and overall trip efficiency.
Firstly, download Google Translate on your phone. And don't forget to pick up a local sim card! Thank heavens for the internet. With this app, and a good understanding of how to use it (see below), you can talk to just about anyone. You can also learn a lot from it- especially the web version, which provides you with definitions and alternative translations. That being said, you'll get a lot of tilted heads and a "Huh?!" if you don't mindfully organize your sentence in English first.
As someone who teaches English, and studies languages for fun, I'll admit that I'm at an advantage here- but these aren't qualifications for making the app work for you. It should be pointed out that at least a basic understanding of the target language will go a long way. Here are a few tips to making sure the translation conveys what you're trying to say...
- Try to form the most unambiguous sentence possible. Don't give the translator an opportunity to choose an alternative definition for a word you want to use. Be mindful about the verbiage you're inputting. For example, the other day, I wanted to tell my friend that I would send her some tissues in the mail, in case she needs to cry from missing me so much (heavy sarcasm). But the translator determined that I was talking about the kind of tissue found in your body. You can imagine how this must have sounded on the other end. "Napkins for tears" might sound a bit ridiculous and overly literal, but it will certainly get the point across- and you'll earn points for cuteness.
- Keep your sentences short and simple. Express one idea at a time. The longer a sentence gets, the more complicated it gets, exponentially multiplying your chances of getting a screwed up translation.
- Use proper punctuation! This is pretty much lost in texting these days, but essential when translating. A period instead of a question mark or an exclamation point can change what you're trying to say entirely. So try to remember what we've been learning since pre-school!
- Perform an inverted check on your sentence! This is the best trick there is to making sure the translator got it right. It's not 100% effective, but it gives you your best shot conveying the message as intended. Simply copy the sentence in the target language and translate back into English. If it sounds funny in English, you might want to consider rewording it.
Learning how to use Google Translate is an invaluable tool, and can help tremendously when you have the time and opportunity to use it. However, there are instances when you can't, and you'll need to rely on your dun, dun, dun... wits.
Enter real-life scenario #2: You have basic knowledge and capability in the target language, but you haven't read my article on why you should already have a local sim card in your phone, or you broke your phone, left it at home, the WiFi sucks, bla bla bla- you otherwise have no access to Google Translate. Oh no! Time to see how rusty that Español is! Whatever you do, don't be that English-speaker who just adds -o to everything, or this will happen:
Either: English-speaker walks into store and attempts to communicate with clerk in English, despite being in a non-English-speaking country. Clerk responds with their native language and a blank stare. English-speaker continues to speak in English with frustration like the clerk should understand them, and proceeds to look at me with disbelief like I should be on their side. I respond in third language with, "I don't speak English." Ironically, that's the same person who complains when foreigners don't speak English in their country.
Or: If instead, you're the English-speaker who makes a genuine attempt to communicate in the local language, and I see you're struggling, I'll try to constructively come to the rescue, help you through the process, and to teach you what you didn't know in a manner that will help you remember it in the future. You likely won't run into me in your travels, but you likely will run into other expats who feel the same way. Maybe it's the inner snob in me, but I feel like it's going to take more than my intervention for that person to suddenly "get it." Try to have respect for other cultures and at least learn a few phrases (see below) to help you with the basics.
If you have basic knowledge of the target language, and also if you don't, it's wise to expose yourself to the language before your travels. I usually get excited about communicating with the locals, and I'll collect language material to study beforehand. One really helpful method to learn quickly if you don't have the time or money for an actual language class is to download some language-learning audio cd's, like those of the Pimsleur Method. They're great, and you can listen to them anywhere.
But in some places the language is really difficult to learn. Most of us don't stand a chance learning Chinese, for example. One of my best friends, who has been living in several countries in Asia for the last five years, made me laugh with this response when I asked him how he communicates with the locals: "You don't get over the language barrier; you get through it." He went on to hypothesize (and I agree) that, for most languages, if you can say "you" "I" "want" and "have" you can pantomime the rest and effectively make happen whatever it is you're trying to accomplish.
Regardless of the target language you're communicating in, I've discovered a couple incredibly useful phrases during my travels that will save you a lot of time, money, and frustration. You're going to want to write these down, translate them, and make them part of your vocabulary.
- How do you say? (then point) If you want to prevent yourself from running into the same wall over and over again (Super Mario Kart Battle Mode, anyone?) then you can slowly start adding to your vocabulary with this extremely useful phrase. Just pay attention when they give you the answer, and make them repeat it if you didn't hear them. I usually pronounce it back to them to make sure I got it right, because they'll probably correct me if I didn't.
- How much did you pay for that? It's also going to help if you learn the numbers so that you can understand the response, but this phrase is worth a million bucks. Take a look around for someone who is doing or just bought what it is you want, preferably a local, then ask them this question. It's the easiest way to know whether or not the salesman in the upcoming transaction is trying to rip you off or not.
- How much does this cost? If you only have the ability to learn one phrase with a perfect accent, make it this one. Asking this question with a perfect accent, even though you look different will at least temporarily fool the seller into thinking you know the language well, could be a local, and therefor know the ballpark prices.
- Please. Thank you. Nice to meet you. Being polite (and smiling) is going to get you far in any language. A great quote by Jim Carrey drives this point home: "The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is." Be pleasant, and you will attract pleasant people and pleasant things into your life.
Luckily, in many places around the world, at least the more touristic or exposed locations, you'll find that the locals have some capability in English. And unless you got pretty good at speaking another language somehow, you'll likely find that their English is better than your (insert language here). So how do you communicate with someone whose English is very limited? It requires paying a lot of attention to the words coming out of your mouth, which for some reason, the average tourist fails to do.
It should go without saying that you can't speak to a novice English-speaker the same way you would speak to a fellow native (you'd be surprised how many people miss this). We have so many slangs and idiomatic expressions instilled into our everyday vocabulary that, without really thinking about how they could be interpreted, we don't think twice about. A non-native speaker generally learns another language first by translating words directly into their native language. You can imagine how quickly this becomes problematic if you aren't catering to this handicap. Even the phrase "What's up?" is sure to confuse someone who has never heard it and is converting sentences word-for-word into their native language.
Here are a few things to keep in the forefront of your mind when speaking to a non-native English-speaker who isn't fluent...
- Create unambiguous, standardized sentences when speaking. Just as we paid mind to while using Google Translate, it's perhaps even more imperative to do when speaking. This means omitting words that have more than one meaning and words that, when translated literally, don't convey the meaning you were after.
- Enunciate your words, and slowly when necessary. As is suggested in this article I found on WikiVoyage, it's important to preserve your stresses while speaking slowly because many foreigners rely on those stresses to differentiate between other similar words or combination of words. As they comically pointed out in article, when you talk, "like ... a ... ro ... bot," you're more than likely adding to the confusion.
- Avoid using phrasal verbs. If you're not sure what that is, here's a thorough explanation. In short, it's a multi-word verb, meaning more than one word combine to form the meaning of the verb. "To take after" someone, for example, is going to be really confusing to a novice, non-native English-speaker. You might instead say that said person is "very similar" to the other person.
- Avoid asking questions in the negative form. Also from the above-mentioned article, is this hilarious excerpt:
'In English, it's common to answer a question like "They're not going to shoot those horses, are they?" with "No" to confirm that the horses are not going to be shot. However, a listener, such as a non-native speaker, trying to interpret that question by taking every word literally would say "Yes" to indicate that the person asking was correct in assuming that the horses were not going to be shot... but then the questioner would take that answer as indicating that the horses were going to be shot. Since even native speakers are occasionally confounded by this, and English lacks equivalents to the words some other languages have to indicate this distinction, just ask directly: "Are they going to shoot those horses?"'
This happened countless times in the Philippines. I remember asking for bedsheets once, in a different size. I asked the employee, who understood a small amount of English, "You don't have these in a different size?" I constructed a pretty basic sentence, but I didn't realize my error. He responded by saying, "Yes," to which I said, "Oh, great! Where are they?"
Being the extremely polite Filipino that he was, he simply smiled and helped me to start looking for them when I started to sift through the packages. Except he probably thought I wanted help looking for a new set of sheets, and I thought he was helping me find the other sizes. His "yes" response though, was indicating that my sentence was accurate, not that they had the sheets in another size. After not being able to find them, we ran into the same circular problem when I asked him the same question again. I left very confused. He probably did too.
There's a lesson to be learned in every experience, however. And one very important thing that has allowed me to adapt quickly to whichever culture I submerse myself in, is the ability to pay attention to what those lessons are. It's easy to chalk it up to a misunderstanding and forget about it, but really trying to understand what happened and how to correct it will help you in more areas of your life than communication. Analyzing the misunderstanding (or the mistake) is the easiest way to avoid making the same one again.
Many non-native speakers of English don't realize that I'm a native English-speaker, actually. And the reason is actually because they understand me better than other native English-speakers. "Where are you from?" they ask. "Really? You speak differently than other people from your country. Why is it so easy to understand you?" You'd be surprised how often I hear something like this. The reason is because I've become very aware of the above tactics, and I change my language significantly when speaking to a non-native speaker.
It certainly takes some practice, and a commitment to constantly be assessing the words that are coming out of our mouths, but that's a recommended practice anyway, and it wouldn't hurt to improve our international reputation a bit to make up for all the people who don't have the capacity to try. In the end, it comes down to awareness, something that we should constantly be working to improve. Your ability to communicate with others determines how big your world is. I always saw languages as the keys to the doors of this world. You'd be surprised how big and amazingly intricate those worlds are.
So, it's up to you to choose how big your world is. It's up to you to pop those bubbles that we are born into, gather some keys, and open some doors. And it begins with awareness.