For many travelers, there's something both electrifying and terrifying about venturing to a country whose people speak a different language. And while you might be able to wiggle your way through a few phrases in Spanish (thank you, high school) or squint your way through a French menu (thanks, French college boyfriend), actually having a conversation in a language foreign to you can not only be difficult, but also embarrassing. And that's to say nothing of the frustration of the other conversation partner.
So we asked around: In terms of etiquette, is it better to adopt the fake-it-’til-you-make-it mentality, or throw up that white flag in submission, admitting it's going to be a no-go before you crash and burn? Here, some well-traveled experts share their best advice for navigating a language barrier without making a fool of yourself or insulting a friend, waiter, or stranger:
1. Study before you land.
It’s unrealistic to think that you can become a pro at Italian in the few short months before you do a tour of Rome and Tuscany. Or that you could somehow pick up Mandarin in your spare time between work, happy hour, the gym and, you know, sleeping. But travel agent and owner of the Family Travel Boutique, Kimberly Milnes says brushing up on a few common phrases is a good idea before you print your boarding pass. “Sadly in America learning a foreign language is not a priority as it is in many other countries where they learn English along with other languages, she says. "She recommends before you head out on the trip, learn how to say the basics: "Please," "Thank you," "Where is the bathroom?, and "How much is this?" And also learn some common food items — especially if your diet is in any way restrictive — so you can glance over a menu without ordering blindly.
Another tip from travel agent Greg Antonelle is to make an effort to understand customs so you don’t offend anyone: “I believe it’s important to have some history or knowledge of the language, as you never want to mistakenly say something rude or offensive by not doing at least a little research,” he says.
2. Be able to laugh it off.
By making an effort, you’re acknowledging that you respect the customs and culture. That being said, most locals will appreciate the effort and won’t mock you for not appropriately pronouncing and expressing yourself. “When I was in Tansen, Nepal, I requested momo, a local food dish, for dinner in Nepalese. The faces of the people at the restaurant were priceless. I knew something was wrong but was not sure what so I asked again for my chicken momo,” Lisa Niver, a 95-country traveler, shared. “What I asked for was momo with dog and they were concerned that I actually wanted dog momo as opposed to it being my mispronunciation.”
3. Consider it a lesson in culture.
One of the benefits of at least attempting the language is that locals will relax around you. When they know that you value their heritage and have a desire to understand their culture, it opens up barriers, even if you can’t communicate in a manner as in-depth as you would like. “Learning a language will help you interact more with locals and even if you are not very good at first, it makes for very good stories! Recently I went on a liveaboard dive boat in Cuba. It was me, 10 men from Mexico, and one Israeli paratrooper. I would tell you my Spanish is not so great but I translated the scuba briefing three times a day from Spanish to English. One day I was trying to figure out the word chalon. I said, 'I think it means window.' Alon looked at me and said, ‘Lisa, chalon means window in Hebrew but I do not know what it means in Spanish.’ One of my 11 male dive buddies told me, ‘Your Spanish is excellent. Where did you learn to speak so well?’ I said, ‘En la calle (on the street)!' and we both laughed,” Niver shared. "I stopped worrying that I don't speak well enough and have learned so much along the way that I now speak very well. When I went over my notes to write about the Cuba trip, I discovered that I wrote them in Spanish! I had no idea at the time but I was speaking and writing in Spanish the entire trip!”
4. Remember it gets easier the more you do it.
Many romance languages — like Italian, French, and Spanish — have similar roots and may even share some words, making it easier to bounce between them as you travel. Niver says the more often that you study different dialects and phrases, the easier it will come to you, much like with anything else worth the effort. Antonelle adds to relieve the pressure and allow yourself to be surprised: “Ultimately, I think people struggle with language barriers because they don’t want to come across as uninformed or they are afraid they will embarrass themselves by saying the wrong thing. To alleviate that, I recommend to have fun, immense yourself in the culture, and not worry about how you sound speaking the language. Become fully immersed and you will surprise yourself!"
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