One concern that many people have about traveling to somewhere more off-the-beaten-track is how they will be able to muddle through when they don’t speak the language. While English tends to be the lingua franca of travel, it may not be enough to get you through your travels if you stray away from larger cities. In some countries, even in larger cities (like Beijing), most people that you encounter in your comings and goings will have, at best, a limited grasp of English.
Before I go on, full disclosure: in addition to English, I also speak Spanish (which I studied in school for nine years), French (which I taught myself off an on over four years), and Portuguese (which I taught myself sporadically over two years); thus, I have a bit of a leg up in terms of being able to communicate in various locations and circumstances. That being said, I’ve been to all seven continents, and, unsurprisingly, just using English or a Romance language doesn’t always cut it. Plus, you may be cooler than I am and not want to spend so much time learning new vocabulary and grammar. So, what can you do to make it through? Here are three tips:
- Learn “hello”, “thank you”, and “how much does it cost?” These are literally the only words of Chinese that I learned during my two weeks there, and I’m sure that I got the intonations all wrong–hence, the laughter anytime that I spoke. Nevertheless, despite people’s amusement, they understood the gist of what I was saying and did what they could to help me. “Hello” and “thank you” will at least demonstrate an intent to be polite as you brusquely and inarticulately try to make your point–believe me, this attempt at politeness goes a LONG way. “How much does it cost?” communicates to a vendor that you’re ready to play ball and will help you ensure that you arrive home with souvenirs that actually fit your budget! It will take you less than two minutes to find relevant translations online and memorize them; you can even do it on the plane. Alternatively, wait until you touch down and then ask locals for a language lesson as a way to break to ice. It’s your call, but do it. It will make your life so much easier.
- Carry a guidebook, a notebook, and a pen. This is especially important to me because I have a terrible sense of direction and am only semi-decent at reading maps, meaning I am always lost. Literally, in both my daily and travel lives, I actually factor in extra time to get lost because I KNOW that it’s going to happen. The point is, I’m going to always be asking strangers for directions. If you have your guidebook, a kind passerby can help you interpret the map. You can also point to the name of your destination in the local language so that you can get more detailed directions. Plus, there will probably be a helpful, if abbreviated, phrasebook in the back of the guidebook that can help you decipher a restaurant menu or explain more complex concepts to someone who is trying to help you. The notebook and pen will come in handy if you need to enlist on-the-spot visual aids in the translation process. Also, the notebook and pen will assist you in your souvenir shopping and in making your transportation arrangements. I have bought many a souvenir and hired many a tuk-tuk/moto/taxi driver by passing my notebook and pen back and forth to negotiate the price–solid!
- Hostels, hostels, hostels. I know, I know, I’ve already given some of my reasons for why I like hostels. Here’s another: the people who work there are much more likely to speak English than the general populace. They will be able to handle a lot of your inquiries before you head out the door. Plus, if you need to, for example, buy a ticket for an 18-hour overnight train ride from Beijing to Xi’an (yes, I did that–I was still on a student budget!), the people at your hostel can write down “train station” in your notebook so that you can tell the taxi driver where to go. Your hostel-hosts can also write down your preferred travel details (first class, sleeper, date of travel, time of travel, etc.) so that, when you get to the train station, you can use either the English- or local-language lines to buy your ticket, and, in any case, you will be sure that the correct reservation will be made. I could give more examples, but you get the point–staying in hostels will yield more than just budget accommodations and potential new friends; it will also provide you with a cheap (free!) and friendly information and translation source when you don’t know enough of the language to fend for yourself. Highly recommended!
In the end, don’t worry. As demonstrated in the Chinese sign above, sometimes just getting the general idea across is more than sufficient. As long as you keep your wits (and sense of humor!) about you, you’ll be fine. If you have not learned this already, travel will soon teach you that most people are kind and willing to help; if you even attempt to speak their language, they will be that much more supportive. (Note: this is true even in Paris, no matter who tells you differently. French people, in my experience, are incredibly nice and will not be judgmental about your pronunciation flubs!) In short, language should not be a barrier to your dream destination. Do your best, and enjoy your trip–happy travels!