Tips for traveling or living in a country where you don’t speak the language

Sep 12, 2015 | 0 comments

By Christopher Lux

It was Christmas time in Cuenca. A couple of travelers were staying in the short-term rental next to me. They came from the U.S. and were touring the country in a rented car. We had good timeschl chris col logo together drinking Pilseners. We talked, we laughed, and we shared the experiences of our Ecuador visits.

Then, at the end of one evening, the lady came running out of her apartment screaming. I went to see what was wrong. She had seen a large spider in the toilet.

Her friend killed it with his shoe. “I heard the bones break in that thing!” he said.

She paced back and forth trying to calm herself. “I almost sat on that thing,” she kept saying. “I can’t believe there was a tarantula in my apartment! In my toilet!”

For some reason–maybe because of the screaming, maybe they called her–the owner of the apartment showed up. In Spanish, she asked what was wrong.

chl bookThe couple looked at me to translate. I told the landlord that they said there was a spider. They said it was a tarantula in the bathroom. The landlord started to respond, but stopped when the man stuck a smartphone in her face.

She stared at the phone. I looked at the man holding it.

He noticed I was looking at him. “It has a translator,” he explained. “Tell her to talk into it and then I’ll know what she says.”

I told her. She looked at me like I was to blame. I told him the landlord was uncomfortable with the idea. She was also confused. She turned to me, making sure she was not facing the phone, and spoke directly to me.

“What?” he asked, surprised. “I’ve used the translator everywhere I’ve gone in Ecuador. What’s her problem?”

Not knowing the language of a country that you’re visiting is not unusual. It happens all the time. Many people love to be in new countries and experience new cultures, but we can’t simply pick up a language in a few weeks or even months. But sticking a translator in a local’s face might not be the best solution.

So, what should you do when you don’t speak the language of the land? Below are a few tips I came up with. Please add your own suggestions (and experiences) in the comments section below.

1. Learn the basics. At least learn how to say hello, please, thank you, excuse me, and goodbye. In Ecuador, for example, you don’t just walk into a store, look around, and leave. You should say “Buenos dias” or “Buenas tardes” (depending on the time of day) when you enter a store. If not, you’re rude. In fact, I’ve noticed that Ecuadorians greet other patrons who are already eating in restaurants with “Buen porvecho,” when they arrive, and usually receive a “Gracias” in return. This is particularly the case if it is a small restaurant. Then, when you leave a small store, it’s important to say, “Gracias,” even if you didn’t buy anything.

As a safety precaution, learn how to say a few distress phrases. Even if you don’t end up needing them, you’ll feel more at ease having words like “help,” “emergency” and “police” in your vocabulary.

I also recommend you learn to ask for bathrooms, food, and beer. These can be important.

2. Use hand gestures and sounds. Nodding, pointing, and even making movements that represent what you’re saying can be very successful. Of course, gesturing for a bathroom might not be a good idea. So, like I said in number one, learn how to say it.

3. Bring a notepad. Drawing pictures is a great way to get your point across without having to play Guess-what-I’m-saying-based-on-my-gestures. Also, in Spanish-speaking countries, you could sometimes get away with writing the word in English, first. If you need a hospital, for example, you could communicate by writing the word. When a local sees the word in writing, they’ll know what you need because it’s the same in Spanish. If you say it in English, though, they might not understand you since the pronunciation is different.chl smart phone

4. Take notes. In that notepad, write down some important words and phrases that you think you might need but haven’t been able to learn. If it’s a short list and you know what’s in it, you’ll be able to find it fast. As a plus, you might learn those important words and phrases just from writing, saying, and repeating them.

Also, in the notepad, you could put the street address where you’re staying. If you get lost or don’t have a ride, you could show a taxi driver the address, with the nearest cross street–even if you don’t know how to pronounce it.

5. Be patient, stand back and observe. Many questions can be answered without speaking. Before asking, you might see a sign that indicates public bathrooms or a street name that looks familiar.

6. Use your smartphone. I recommend you use it as you would a pocket dictionary, though. Not as a translator that you thrust in someone’s face.

You can also use a smartphone to translate text in photos, like street signs or menus.
Using a smartphone in some areas might prove to be a bit dangerous, though. In that case, you might consider the old-fashioned method: a book.

7. Then, there’s the ever-frustrating suggestion: Take classes, meet a local, start a conversation.

People traveling and living abroad have heard this over and over again. These are great ways to learn the language. However, for those who have tried this approach, you know it’s easier said than done. You don’t just learn it by being in a new country. Learning a new language is hard work and it’s frustrating. But be strong, have patience, learn the essentials, and enjoy the country you’re in.


Christopher Lux

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