Tower of Babel: allegory for language

We don’t speak the same language

Most people who travel abroad find themselves in situations without a common language with the locals. What do you do if that happens? Here’s my guide on how to communicate anywhere.

Understand cultural cues

Read up before you go on gestures and culture. Depending on your destination, you may learn that hand counting is done differently than you are used to, or that giving a “thumbs up” or “ok” sign is obscene. You may find that people use an unfamiliar motion to mean “I don’t understand” or “I want to help.” Study up; knowledge is power.

Locals also may interact in a different way than people in your home country do. They may be most comfortable talking to one another from a much closer distance than you, or a further distance. Keep an open mind and absorb these differences as mere differences, and avoid judging which system is inherently better.

Maintain a friendly demeanor, and be patient. Communicating without words can feel awkward and frustrating, but keep calm and you’ll figure it out eventually. One thing that’s obnoxious pretty much everywhere you go: simply repeating yourself louder and louder… I assure you it’s not a issue of hearing.

Body language is gold

Make tons of use of motions and gestures. As long as you are aware of cultural significance of certain signs (see above), body language is infinitely useful. If you want to find out if a store is open, you’ll be much better off by signalling opening a door than you are asking, “are you open?” If your travel companion is cold, pointing to him/her and pantomiming shivering will be understood by everyone, from Armenians to Zulus.

Also, keep a pen and paper handy. There are many symbols that are universal. A clock with its hands in a certain position conveys a given time. Icons such as and are understood almost everywhere, as are Arabic numerals (0123456789). These can work marvels. And if you’re artistically inclined, you can probably draw what you’re thinking of.

Sounds can be useful too. Want to know if the meat in front of you is beef? Point and moo, with a questioning look on your face. They’ll understand, and probably will laugh too.

Forget perfect English

Your goal here is to communicate – to get an idea from your head to the other person’s and vice versa – rather than to showcase your eloquence. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to let go of grammar, even if you feel like it makes you sound like a caveman! For someone who has very limited English, it’s much easier to understand, “you go to America?” than, “how many times ya been to the States?” Likewise, you’ll get though better with, “where is toilet?” or simply, “toilet?” than with, “where can I find yer crapper at?”

Simplify the way you speak. Enunciate clearly, and cut out slang – you’re helping nobody by using colloquialisms.

Learn 2 words

Some recommend that you learn 20 or so words/phrases and all the numbers before you land in a foreign country. I think that’s unreasonable and scares most people into avoiding preparation altogether. I say: learn two phrases in the local language. You can get by with “hello” and “thank you”, if you embrace my other tips well. This way, you make an impression of caring about local ways. Starting an interaction on the right foot will never hurt.

If you want to memorize just one more, I think the third-most useful phrase is, “do you speak English?” But most people can glean that you need English from hearing you speak it. And even if they can’t specifically identify your language as English, they might assume it anyway given English’s status as a world language.

For those who are more apt with words and want to dig in and learn more, try to find a multilingual (tour guides and hotel staff usually work) to answer your language questions. They can help you out, explain stuff to you, and repeat a phrase over and over until you nail that perfect accent.

Check out my resources page for more travel and language tips. 

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Image source: public domain (The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

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