Relax, You Don’t Need to Speak the Language

“But aren’t you scared?” is what an anxious traveler asked fellow blogger Seth Miller. Seth’s post, and accompanying podcast discussion on Episode 97 of Dots, Lines and Destinations, are both illuminating on the hurdles for many to stepping out in the world. What caught my attention, and made me think to recent Frequent Traveler University’s where I lecture on international travel, and the sessions today at the NYT Travel show by the Frommers and Lee Abbamonte, is that the concern of many is not safety, rather it is communication.

People feel a place is unsafe and they don’t go. Fair enough. Reality may often be different than perception, though difficult to assess from the outside.

The communication issue, though, surprises me that it is such a hurdle for many Americans, even when considering the most heavily touristed places in the world.

I have been to 145 UN countries (218 TCC countries) and rarely encounter a language issue that cannot be solved. I am no talented linguist. My fluency in Mandarin Chinese comes from many years of hard study. I have managed to visit every Spanish-speaking country, always with the intention of learning Spanish, and never have beyond a few words. My French is no better. I can slowly spell out the Cyrillic alphabet.

This is not to say a travel experience is not better when speaking the local language. My most memorable travel experiences center on traveling every province of China, overnight ‘hard seat’ train rides in deep conversation with cigarette smoke blown in my face. I can only have that level of interaction in English-speaking and Chinese-speaking countries.

There are three reasons why language is not a big deal, and it’s not because of pocket dictionaries or apps, which I often carry and rarely find any use.

  1. To function as a tourist at a basic level, you only really need to achieve certain things: eat something, get somewhere, sleep somewhere. I can’t read much of a Spanish menu but can always point at what others are eating or order the almuerzo (daily set). People in commerce that want your business find ways to communicate.
  2. English is incredibly widespread. French-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries have the most spotty English proficiency. Still, wait on a street corner and within a few minutes you almost always find someone with a bit of English.
  3. People are nice and want to help. In 145 countries, the only country where I have routinely encountered people hassled for not speaking the language is…the United States.

Here’s a last reason: language follies can create immediate bonds with locals and be hilarious in hindsight.

When I think of Mongolia, my first thought brings a huge smile: Mongolia uses a Cryrillic alphabet and my Bradt guidebook used a Roman alphabet. I walked into a restaurant, no one spoke a word of English and I did not speak Russian. No other customers eating, so I started ordering the several cheapest items on the menu.

Those familiar with ex-Soviet countries know that everything is itemized, you even pay for ketchup packets at McDonald’s. The waitress smiled with that, “you are so cute in how dumb you are” way and went to the kitchen.

She returned with (1) a plastic bag, (2) a foam takeout box, (3) white rice, and (4) a friend egg. I love friend eggs!

We continued up the menu by price and I eventually added succulent dumplings to my treasure.

That waitress must have gone home with a “you can’t believe the customer I had today” story, and I will never forget that meal. Good thing they had no English menu!

Photo by Mizu_Basyo, via Wikimedia Commons

By Mizu_Basyo, via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. […] I think one of the barriers many people have to extensive foreign travel is worrying about the language barrier.  On our recent trip to Europe, we were mostly in English-speaking countries, but we did have a bit of a language barrier trying to order breakfast at a Monegasque boulangerie.  Rapid Travel Chai tells us to Relax!  You don’t need to speak the language. […]

  • Nic

    Most people think of communication being verbal, forgetting there are other types.

  • LarryInNYC

    My reply to “do they speak English there?” is always “I sure hope not”. Traveling in a country where you have to struggle — or at least work — to communicate gives the trip a feeling, at least, of an adventure.

    I find that a sincere effort to speak a few words of the local language no matter how poorly accented often produce an amazing reception, better than if I had arrived as a client speaker.

    Was at the travel show yesterday myself, sorry to have missed you.

  • brteacher

    My favorite travel experience was in Lithuania in 1992, with my mom and my sister. No one (literally) that we met spoke English, because the Soviets did not allow ordinary people to learn English, because they might read dangerous enemy propaganda. Prior to going through the Baltics, we had purchased a ticket for the 9:30 PM overnight bus to Warsaw. When we got to the bus station that night, we were unable to get on the bus, because our tickets turned out to be for the wrong day. Many people were immediately eager to help, and people were so eager for us to spend the night with them that they almost fought over who got to carry our bags. We shared a wonderful evening, though we didn’t speak a word of Lithuanian or Russian, and they spoke no English. It’s amazing how much can be communicated with pictures, drawing, pantomime, etc.

  • john

    Well said!

    All the Spanish speaking countries? How was Equatorial Guinea?

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @john – ah, you got me in a blind spot, did not know they are Spanish speaking.

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