Out of your element…

02/09/12

If someone suggested you take your next vacation in a part of the world where you didn’t understand the language, what would be your reaction? Fear? Intrigue? Panic? Excitement? Desperate queries about how much English the locals spoke?

Personally speaking, this idea has crossed my mind several times. It would make me nervous, sure, but there is also something irresistible about the allure of such a challenge. The closest I ever came was spending two months in Slovakia. So far all the languages I’ve studied have been western European, so there were very few similarities that I could use to help me understand a Slavic language. 

My first step was to download a language learning app for Slovak. It had pictures, said the word for each picture, showed it written, and showed the word in English to help the user understand the picture. Preparing myself with this app before arriving in the country helped a lot. Hearing and seeing the word helped me associate the picture with the Slovak word rather than the English one, and helped me associate the Slovak sounds to the letters in the word. To me, this is much more fun and effective than trying to memorize a list of words out of a phrasebook.

After arriving in the country, my first attempt to buy a cup of coffee went something like this: [reads menu item], two, please. Clumsy yes, but it was in the language and covered what needed to be said. It was much better and less insulting than assuming they would understand me in English. Also, making sure to know how to say ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ goes a long way. If they can see that a person is making an effort in their language and being polite, people are more likely to be patient and helpful. This helped me on a train to Germany once where the conductor spoke only German. Our conversation involved a lot of gesturing, ‘bitte’s, ‘danke’s and smiling, but we did manage to communicate, and the goodwill was clearly established.

Traveling to a foreign country can be a rich and rewarding experience. That becomes so much more true with some language preparation beforehand, and making an effort and politeness while there. It helps break down barriers and can be a great confidence boost to a visitor feeling a little out of their element.