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.
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.
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.
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.