Culture Shock: Language Barriers

Many people seem hesitant about traveling to foreign countries because of language barriers, but those same barriers can actually enhance the experience. August Flanagan offers some tips on how you can still experience a culture when you don’t speak the language.

A couple of years ago I wandered into the bus station in Vientián, Laos, and promptly hopped on the wrong bus. I eventually got to where I was going after 26 long, uncomfortable hours. For those 26 hours I was alone on a bus where not a single person spoke a word of English.

August Flanagan When I look back on the experience what I remember most is not the 26 hour journey, or the fact that I was completely lost and had no way to communicate with anyone. Instead, I remember how much I bonded with the people around me during that ride.

At one stop I worked up quite a sweat helping the bus driver unload several tons of tile, stowed in the underbelly of the bus (for my effort I was rewarded with a hearty pat on the back, some words of thanks, and a big bottle of ice cold water).

At four a.m. when I awoke to find the bus stopped on the side of the road, the driver asleep in his seat, I climbed off the bus and stood huddled with the only three other men who were on the bus at this hour. While they smoked cigarettes and told jokes I found myself laughing at words I did not understand, and genuinely enjoying myself.

Over the years of traveling I’ve had a lot of similar experiences – ones that have taught me that there are a lot of ways to communicate and share with others. Speaking a language is just one of these ways. Here are a few of my recommendations on how to travel, experience a culture, and bond with others, without ever speaking their language.

1. “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please” and “Thank you” can be learned in any language. Take 15 minutes and figure them out. Making this effort will garner respect and appreciation in almost any setting.

August Flanagan 2. Learn about the culture before you get there. Knowing about the history, religion, cuisine, politics, customs, etc. is invaluable. Not only will you understand more about what is going on around you, you will know what behavior is appropriate, and how to act in certain settings that you will inevitably find yourself in (like being invited into someone’s home).

3. A smile is universal (except in France).

4. Meet some English speakers. It’s lucky that you speak English. The whole world is learning English, and it is pretty easy to meet people who would love to show you around their town in exchange for the opportunity to practice their English. Couchsurfing.org has made it easy to find and connect with people the world over. There are all sorts of people on Couchsurfing, many of whom just want to meet new people, grab a drink, and practice their English.

August Flanagan 5. Learn to speak a bit of the language. OK, I know I said these were tips on how to travel without knowing the language, but depending on the length of your trip and your level of interest in the language/culture you might consider a few lessons. I have always found that the way to study a language is to find a place you really like, stop traveling, and stay there for a bit of time (whether that be two weeks or two months). You might not learn a ton of Mandarin in two weeks, but you would be amazed at how much Spanish you can learn with just a couple of weeks of instruction.

6. Eat alone, eat often, and eat on the street. Hands down my favorite part of traveling is eating. The varied cuisines of the world fascinate me (I once wrote an essay about this fascination and received a $20,000 fellowship to go explore the world’s different cuisines.), but what fascinates me even more are the interactions that take place during mealtime. If you follow this advice I guarantee that you will have all sorts of unexpected interactions, with the most unexpected of characters. And of course you will enjoy some amazingly delicious (and often very cheap) food.

7. Be fearless. Whether you speak the language or not, this should encompass all aspects of your travels. You can circumnavigate the globe in first class air-con buses or take packaged tours, but you will miss out on the opportunities and experiences that are had by deciding to, say, hitchhike across a country, or ride the chicken buses of Central America, or trek through the Himalayas. I promise you these are infinitely more rewarding experiences.

August Flanagan is the co-founder of Lenguajero.com, a free Spanish and English online language exchange community. He currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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7 Comments on "Culture Shock: Language Barriers"

  1. Dave on Mon, 21st Sep 2009 3:31 pm 

    Great post August!

    During my last 1.5 years of travel, I was truly surprised at how little difficulty I had in getting around places like Nepal, China and India. When I finally left China, I knew I’d miss the requisite laughter from shopkeepers whenever I’d enter their store and try to ask a question using body language and smiles alone. :)

  2. August Flanagan on Mon, 21st Sep 2009 9:29 pm 

    Thanks Dave!

    You know, even after having spent the last year learning Spanish and considering myself a pretty decent speaker of the language I still get the “requisite laughter” from shopkeepers, friends, etc. It let’s me know that I still have some learning to do…

  3. Emily @ Maiden Voyage on Tue, 22nd Sep 2009 10:13 am 

    I love these tips. I think being fearless is a big one — don’t be afraid to mess up and use the wrong word. Many people are too shy to even try. But I would also be sure to add “where is the toilet” to the list of key phrases from point number one — always comes in handy :)

  4. Sherry on Tue, 22nd Sep 2009 10:38 am 

    Thanks for the great post! I’d also like to add my favorite sayings to learn – turn right, turn left, straight ahead, here. Taxi directions!

    Sorry – I’ve been to France – but don’t understand the France commet regarding smiles? Please educate me!!

  5. Hotel Villa Caletas on Thu, 24th Sep 2009 12:39 pm 

    I believe the most difficult language to learn is the chinese, because of its different variations and the writing, so, you will certainly need to be sure what the pronunciation of even simple words like hello are

  6. Dave and Deb on Thu, 24th Sep 2009 4:44 pm 

    What an excellent post! I love that you look back at that 26 hour journey with fondness. We have been on some of those long rides and as uncomfortable as they were, it is true. We always remember the little moments. I will never forget watching Dave in Burma talking with a group of kids in the middle of the night. He couldn’t understand a word and yet they were carrying on what looked like and in depth conversation.
    What an experience it must have been winning that fellowship, it is everyone’s dream and you lived it! Amazing.

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