How to Kick a Language Barrier’s Ass

I used to believe that language barriers were just a social construct. An invention of the unadventurous. A non-issue because life is beautiful and “language is diversity” and everything you really need to say can be expressed with you eyes . . .

Bullshit. That must have been when I took a trip to Canada when I was 11, and the biggest language barrier I faced was the overwhelming insertion of “eh” into every sentence.

I’ve since outgrown such a naive viewpoint because I’ve left the English-only traveling bubble. I believe I came to doubt the notion the second I touched down in Egypt at age 16 and couldn’t interact with a local beyond the buying and selling of camel keychains. The budding hypothesis that language barriers may in fact exist was then confirmed when trying to ask directions to our tiny inn on a remote Greek island. “Kalamata” and “Odysseus” were about the extent of our shared vocabulary.

My first trip to Europe and the Middle East when I was 16!

I’m incredibly lucky that my native language is such a world superpower, and that billions of people spend time, money and effort learning a language that I was so fortunate to know naturally. But what happens when the inevitable strikes in your travels—you come across someone who doesn’t speak English, and you yourself aren’t exactly fluent in Polish or Cantonese.

The struggle is real. The barrier is real. But luckily, so are these tips to assuage the pain.

Here are my five recommendations for kicking a language barrier’s ass:

1. Plan ahead and study up

Not even Rosetta Stone will get you fluent overnight, but if you know you’re traveling somewhere a bit in advance, practice. I know, I know, we all lead busy lives. But if you view this linguistic preparation with equal necessity as, say, getting your vaccinations, maybe you’ll do better. It’s all part of the travel checklist: Renew passport. Buy malaria pills. Study basic Swahili.

I’m not saying memorize verb forms. The effort of that is fruitless; the minute someone responds to you, you won’t be able to keep up with the conversation. I’m suggesting knowing such basics as “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and “Oooh, how delicious!” You know, the things that will set you apart from the other hoards of (sometimes not so respectful) tourists and hopefully make the locals appreciate your efforts.

2. Watch your body language

Along the same vein of studying up, research gestures in the country you’re headed. Maintaining eye contact as a woman in some places is seen as an open invitation, and you never know if a simple scratch of the head could be taken as a “fuck you” somewhere else. Some cultures have very inventive ways to flip people off.

The thumbs up sign in Greece and the Middle East is offensive, equivalent to giving the middle finger in the States. Pointing with the index finger is a huge no-no in many countries. Even in English, there can be issues cross-culturally: Ex-president George W. Bush once waved a peace sign at an event in Australia, but with his palm facing inwards it meant that the crowd should go screw themselves.

Don’t follow in Bush’s footsteps, for oh so many reasons. Get a bit versed in gestures before you go.

Poland street art

Posing amongst Polish speech bubbles in Wroclaw, Poland.

3. Hit up the youngin’s

I have absolutely no background in Slavic languages—my sister carried on the family’s Russian heritage—and in Poland even remembering street names was a challenge. There are all sorts of random consonants grouped together, and tiny little symbols I haven’t seen since my sophomore year Phonetics class. At the beginning of my stay in Poland, I would approach anyone who walked by to ask for help. Once I was almost driven to tears when I asked an elderly woman to help point me towards my hostel. She gave me a brisk shake of the head, a harsh “no!” and stormed off. Not the warmest reception.

Then I realized I was doing it all wrong. English hasn’t been taught internationally since the beginning of time—it’s the younger generation who has grown up learning it in schools, and it’s the younger generation you should approach for directions or advice on the street.

4. Write down the essentials

Think: the street name of your hotel, a food allergy, or “public toilet.” This is especially pertinent if you’re traveling to a country that uses characters, like South Korea, or script, like Egypt. By copying the words down or printing them out, you can easily point to them. Even if you attempt to spell out a word using English sounds, like “may yaw-mow Jenny” [Spanish: me llamo Jenny], a local may not necessarily understand you, given prominent pronunciation differences.

Take my word for it—it’s easier to point to a notebook than develop the tongue muscles required to correctly pronounce most sounds of the world’s languages.

5. Change your outlook

polish menu | language barriers

Why not try the “surprise?” (At least they told you in English.)

Yes, there is no magic solution for a language barrier, so instead of trying to lobby for English to become the universal language, it’s probably easier to change your outlook. Language is part of the traveling game, like it or not, so it’s time to start playing along. You left your home country for new experiences, right? So why not order randomly off the menu just once, not knowing what will come, instead of asking everyone in the restaurant whether or not the dish contains peas. After all, you didn’t go all the way to Istanbul or Timbuktu to try a hamburger. Branch out—that’s what travel is for, and foreign language, while scary at times, is a cleverly disguised tool to help you do so.

Languages are like any other component of travel—they should be planned for, but not feared. And the payoff is well worth it: World languages are the most present form of culture that you can find. The songs, signs, calls and cries of a country is a culture alive.

So yes, language challenges exist. But barriers? There are ways to climb over them.

A version of this post originally appeared on Meet, Plan, Go.