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How to Communicate When You Don’t Speak the Language

How to Communicate When You Don’t Speak the Language

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.  What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


What do you call someone who speaks three languages?


What do you call someone who speaks one?


But I digress….

Like many (but admittedly not all) Americans, my language skills leave something to be desired. Traveling to foreign lands can be intimidating when you can’t read signs, order at restaurants, or even find a bathroom. But don’t let that be an excuse to not travel.

Several years ago I was in a Czech train station, and I was hungry. (My dad’s family emigrated from Bohemia, but the only Czech I can speak involves words not suitable for polite conversation.)  I attempted to ask the gruff-looking elderly Czech women what kind of meat was on the sandwiches, but nothing was working. So I got creative. I tried charades and animal sounds. The women looked at me with wide eyes, and I just know they thought I was crazy. After a few moments they began to soften, and eventually even laughed. I left with a chicken sandwich and a smile on my face.

I learned two important lessons in that encounter. One, don’t take yourself too seriously, and just try. And two, animals make different sounds in different languages.  Seriously!

English is ubiquitous and extremely useful in many parts of the world. For example, there are hundreds of African languages, so Africans often use English or French to communicate with each other.  So more often than not, once we’ve attempted the local language people shift and speak English with us. (Even in France!)

Google translate fail!
(Taiwanese menu)

One rule we always try to follow: Learn a few useful phrases of the local language.  Things like:  Hello. Do you speak English?  Where is the bathroom? Please. Thank you.  Even in countries like the Netherlands where everyone speaks impeccable English, we personally feel it’s the respectful thing to do to at least attempt a few phrases of the local language.  We are in their country, after all.

These days we no longer even have to carry travel dictionaries, as Google Translate is easy, fast, and free (even if it’s not perfect). You can speak into the phone and it can translate both written and vocal phrases.  I often save my favorite phrases for quick and easy recall.   It can even translate images.

I now love traveling to places where no one speaks English.  It’s authentic, challenging, and rewarding.

Something else that easily translates?  A smile.

What do you think? What strategies do you use to communicate in foreign countries?  Leave them in the comments below!

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