How To Prepare For A Country When You Don’t Speak The Language

Written by  Tucky Fussell
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Going to a country without knowing the local language can be as terrifying to some as bungee jumping. But there are several verbal safety harnesses to help ease your anxiety before you go: the words PLEASE, THANK YOU, and TOILET. Learn those words in the local language prior to taking off and you’ll feel better already. Aside from the basics, there are several ways to ease the stresses of traveling to a foreign land with little to no experience speaking the native tongue.

Bring Photos Instead Of A Phrase Book

One inventive friend of mine who was relocating to China and didn’t speak Chinese prepared for the trip in an usual way. He stored pictures of daily objects he thought he’d need on his iPad: an iron, vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, etc. He said he was glad he thought ahead as he could always bring up his photos to show a salesperson. It made his life easier, as long as the salespeople brought him the object he needed, which they sometimes forgot about after insisting on seeing photos of his house and his family in the U.S. Another helpful tool is to bring along printed maps, so you can point to locations as needed.

Experience Authentic Travel At Its Best

Celebrate how fun it can be when communicating without the use of words. By using alternative means to get your point across, you can learn surprising things about others. When I was on the outskirts of Prague 30 years ago, when no one spoke English, several of us were looking for a restaurant that served chicken, as we had already sampled every variety of goulash in existence. I suddenly remembered I had my sketchbook in my backpack. I whipped it out, drew a simple drawing of a roasted chicken. When the man motioned for my pencil, he drew a quick cartoon of a farmer running after my chicken with a knife. He was so amused, he actually took the time to walk us to a chicken restaurant ten minutes away.

Leave Behind Assumptions

There are times when you end up in country where you thought everyone spoke some English, as I did when I got to Cebu, an island of the Philippines. I mean, wasn’t it a territory of the United States? One day while out looking for a taxi on a dusty street corner where my neighbor was swatting flies off his slab of illegal tuna for sale, I asked where to get a taxi. When he looked at me quizzically, I made honking motions and started shuffling. He nodded, smiled, and said “Ah! Habal habal,” which I thought was an invitation to smoke a hookah, because when I lived in Kuwait, this smoking device was referred to as the “hubbly bubbly.” I tried to be polite. “No thanks, I’m kind of in a rush.” I walked to my destination. Days later, another friend told me she was the proud owner of a habal habal – a motorcycle.

Take Comfort in Locals’ Efforts Struggling to Speak Your Language, Too

Remind yourself that while you cannot speak the local language, natives looking to strike up a conversation with you might have a difficult time as well. You can both learn together and even uncover fascinating cultural insights. During a tour to Russia with my parents in 1976, my father was leaving our hotel in Moscow for a brief walk. The doors of a local tour bus opened and out flooded hundreds of Russian tourists. A man shrieked when he saw my dad, grabbed his pants and started yelling, “You have shansh! 200 dollars for shansh.” My father thought he was a beggar saying the word “change,” but when my dad offered him a few rubles, the man vigorously shook his head and brought out $200. The man followed him yelling, “I give you money, you give me shansh.” He realized the man meant “jeans,” which he later learned did not exist at that time in Russia. Dad said he was tempted, but declined. He needed the money, but then thought of wandering back to the hotel in his briefs and ending up in some prison popped into his head.

Not Knowing the Language Can Be A Cathartic Experience

If you want to acknowledge a transition in your life, an ending, then why not celebrate a new beginning by almost reverting to infancy and not being able to speak? Traveling to a foreign land without knowing its national language can be a truly enlightening experience in that regard. Once you’ve arrived, so long as you have a hotel to stay in and fingers to point with, you can let the city speak to you instead. Not focusing on what people are saying allows you to focus on other parts of language – the intonation, the sing-song quality, and the rhythm. Besides, there are plenty of other sounds: the pounding percussion of drills and the wailing of horns, for instance. Years ago I walked through Bangkok alone for hours and heard only the monologue of my mind and the pattern of my walking. During that time, I made the decision to become a full-time teacher. Twenty years later, I am still happy with the decision.

With an open mind, a positive attitude, and the right tools and tricks, any travel plans you make to a foreign country without knowing the language can quickly become one of the most memorable experiences of your life. You’ll be granted so many opportunities to learn more about the world we live in, about the lives of others, and―perhaps most surprisingly―about yourself.

Check out the author’s book, The Gulf: A Story Of Art, Mystery, And Deception Through Images, which is available for purchase on Amazon and wherever books are sold.


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