Last week I was catching up with a friend who recently returned from spending a year in New Zealand. The trip was only her third time out of the U.S. and her first solo adventure, so I was really interested to hear her thoughts on the experience. It sounded like she had an excellent time and would have likely not come back but for family commitments here. Our conversation next strayed (naturally) towards future travel and where she would like to go next. Imagine my surprise when I heard she was only interested in opportunities in English-speaking countries!
Now I appreciate the ease of communication that comes with traveling within your native language. However, I’ve also seen enough to know that things can pretty much always get lost in translation no matter where you go! (I mean, accents anyone? Weird slang? Same word, different meaning?) I tried to encourage her to branch out and brave it, but to no avail. Her main concern was in traveling solo, which I can definitely understand. But I’m still a bit sad for her and all the great opportunities she’s missing – hopefully she’ll change her mind as her travel confidence grows!
I’ve written some tips on this topic before, but as the conversation has really been on my mind this week, today I thought I’d share a few more reasons why language shouldn’t be – and isn’t – a barrier to seeing your dream destinations, solo or not.
- It’s a small world – I suppose there are some places left on the planet that have not been exposed to foreigners, but they are few and far between. Most people are fundamentally good – and understanding. They don’t necessarily expect you to be fluent in their language and customs. As long as you keep a positive and respectful attitude, someone will do all they can to help you out with whatever you need, big or small.
- It’s a big, beautiful world – There is too much to see in the world to let language get in the way. The only true barrier to travel should be safety because, well, you want to live to tell your tales. Unless your safety is at risk, #1 will get you through.
- Preparation is vital – Presumably you will have some amount of time to research your destination and the means to do so. No matter where you’re going – language barrier or not – knowing the basics is definitely conducive to a positive experience. Search for key words, common traditions (especially greetings), and easy offenses (especially hand gestures). And if you find yourself somewhere on a whim, pay attention to those around you. You should be able to pick up a few basics from observation (though I recommend investing enough time that you hear/see the same thing more than once – then you know it’s more likely a custom and not something you don’t want to repeat).
- Map it out – Buy a map and become familiar with the local geography. If you become lost, have someone point on the map – you don’t necessarily have to know how to pronounce the road signs, matching them up visually will usually get you where you want to go. Does this get you branded as a tourist? Yes. Is that a bit dangerous? Potentially, it’s good to be discreet where you can. But is it worth it? Totally.
- Miming is fun – Much like math, I have found miming to be an almost universal language. Sure you feel ridiculous, but if you can keep a smile on your face it will all be just fine. I will warn that you should do a search for inappropriate hand gestures for the culture you’re visiting. You don’t want to inadvertently offend anyone! Visual aids (such as pictures or a map) are also super handy for speedy resolution.
- Currency considerations – It is generally safe to assume that the price is in the local currency unless otherwise marked. Know the local currency and a rough exchange rate so you can be prepared to do some quick and dirty math. If all else fails, numbers are universal, even if the words for those numbers are not. Write it out or count it out with your fingers.
- Lookout for groups – Sometimes you just need to hear a familiar word, so be sure to look for opportunities to find other speakers of your language (you are rarely alone in this small world). Book a day tour, stay in a hostel, find the expat community – any option that exposes you to a group of people will likely help you find a familiar language. It’s also a good chance to make friends and learn some of their tips and tricks.
What would you say to a friend afraid of crossing the language barrier??
(Other than “I’ll be happy to come along and assist!” – that one’s a given 🙂 )