Language barriers

Travelling Where You Don’t Understand the Language

By Dennis Aimes

For anybody that has spent time travelling internationally you know that it can be an incredibly unique experience, something that can only be understood by others that have also made an international expedition.  I have stepped outside of my comfort zone quite a bit in my years, spending a year living in South Korea and two living in China, as well as minor tours around Europe.

Something that was easily as scary as it was exciting was being in a country where nobody spoke my language.  You can end up surrounded by people yet still feel completely isolated.  This shouldn’t keep you from stepping out into another world though, because with a few pieces of advice that I’ve learned, I think you can make any kind of trek easier.

Buy a proper guide / phrasebook

The right phrase / guide book will give you a heads-up on cultural particulars of your travel destination, such as rules of etiquette.  Hopefully this advice protects you from becoming another example of an outrageous foreigner.

A good phrase book should be organized by categories, such as finding a hotel, or negotiating over the price of shoes.  It should also have a pronunciation guide with words spelled phonetically.  A phrasebook of Russian words written in Cyrillic is useless if you can’t read Cyrillic, much as one in Chinese would be equally useless if it doesn’t explain the four tones.

Learn the most important words

From my time travelling there are some words that are the most important to learn in any language.  In no particular order they are:

  • Your street, your hotel, and/or your neighborhood
  • How to order food or the names of dishes,
  • Words for emergency services and how to find them

Practice whenever you can

I took every chance I had to practice what little I learned, I got pretty good at negotiating during my time in China.  During your trip out speak to people on the plane that are heading back home or have experience living in the country.  Practice with them, ask them about their culture.  Don’t be afraid of starting a conversation with people once you’re in the country either.

Get out of your comfort zone when you travel, slam yourself into the middle of a cultural experience and you’ll have the greatest memories.

Dennis Aimes is a writer, insurance advisor and globe trotter that loves sharing his stories with other world travelers.  He currently writes for HBF who offer quick online health insurance quotes.

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