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We all have that fear that we’re lost in a foreign country. Of course, it’s a country where we don’t speak a single syllable of the language.
We all felt a little bubble of fear form in the pit of our stomach and the only question that fills the void is, “What would I do?”
Yet, I would consider this an irrational fear. Irrational because there are so many ways to solve this problem and that it’s not really a problem at all.
For a long time, I let my fat tongue that’s untrained in foreign languages prevent me from experiencing the world. Now I know how seriously wrong my mentality was.
The wrong mentality
Travel is about experiencing diverse cultures around the world. Now, I believe the starker the difference, the more enjoyable the learning experience and cultural journey will be. Before I wasn’t such an optimist.
Before, I believed that if you didn’t learn the language of a country it was a disservice to the country and your experience. Yet, I’ve started to shy away from that.
It certainly is more liberating to travel a country where you are fluent in the language. Accessing information is easier and in some ways, you can blend in and experience a destination like a local.
I yearn to speak foreign languages so I can understand locals depict the history and their daily struggles in their native tongue. Often times, the details and heart of the story are lost in translation. Euphemisms and slang do not translate between languages or a similar meaning can’t be found to tell the story adequately.
Yet, neglecting to hear the story because I’m afraid that it won’t be as great as the original is silly and naïve on my part.
My biggest regret is letting a language barrier stop me from traveling
I think of all the opportunities I passed up simply because I didn’t speak a smidge of the language. Now, looking back, I should never have let that stop me.
I used to limit myself to travel only to the travel where I was fluent in the language or at least knew the basic conversational phrases. Which I was my first, solo international destination was to Puerto Rico. Even though: Me gusta tu gato! De donde al bano? Buenos noches! Was the extent of my Spanish.
According to Duolingo, I’m 8 percent fluent in Spanish. (What a joke!) Yes, this was after “learning” the language for six years, and “teaching” it to kindergarteners for another two. In other words, I can name all the animals in a zoo in Spanish, but do not know the word for clouds or rain.
While I was in Puerto Rico, I spent two weeks trying to scrape by with Spanglish. Sometimes the locals pitied me and would speak to me in English. Other times, reality forced me to try to piece together a coherent sentence in Spanish. It was so rewarding having a local answer my question in Spanish and I knew the exact translation. By speaking to them in their native tongue, I felt like I embraced their culture more.
I decided to push myself even future when I decided to travel to a destination where I didn’t know a single word of the language — Iceland. Though most Icelanders speak English, there were a few times when I was in the northern, fishing villages of Iceland that I couldn’t verbally communicate with the locals. Instead, I had to resort to miming and motioning with my arms to convey my message.
And I survived.
Now, there’s been times when I’ve felt alienated and even stressed that I haven’t known the native language of the country. (Let’s recall that time in Puerto Rico where I got yelled at in Spanish about parking!) But that’s part of the learning process. Learning how to muddle your way through asking for directions and ordering food is just another joy of traveling abroad. It’s those silly moments that you look back and laugh on.
Are my travels less impactful if I don’t know the language?
After visiting countries where I don’t even know the local phrases for “hello” and “goodbye,” it hasn’t been any less meaningful. In each destination I venture to I find some local that shelters me under their wing and educates me about the customs and traditions of the region.
Whether that’s in perfect or broken English or a smattering of other languages, I’ve soaked up every ounce of knowledge I gained.
Often times, I return from where I’ve visited knowing a little more of their language. That is often times more rewarding. I can tell my friends and family that I learn this foreign phrase in a small village from a local woman selling crafts versus I learned it online or via Google.
Regardless of the number of foreign languages I speak, I’m still inundated with the amount of learning I receive while traveling.
What the future holds
For me, there is something so mystical and exhilarating about hearing people speak in their native tongue. I’m envious of them! There syllables and phrases dancing around in their mouths and paint beautiful symphonies — ones that would make Bach jealous. Though I desperately wish I was fluent in more than one language, I won’t let that prevent me from traveling the world.
Whether it’s a secluded, tropical, coastal town or to the heart of a foreign metropolis, I’m going there. I’ve now learned that languages barriers aren’t really a “barrier,” unless I make them be.
Luckily, I can make up for lost time. I’m still young and have plenty of time to embark to those countries where I’m not fluent in German, French, Arabic or anything else. But heck, I’m going.
Discover some tips at Everyday Wanderer about how to overcome language barriers.