Language barrier? What language barrier? - Mundana



Perhaps one of the most daunting aspects of travel is realising that we can’t read and don’t understand the language in the place we’ve chosen to visit. Learning a few words and being able to carry out simple tasks in a new language is very satisfying. It can add an extra dimension to your trip. The good news is that mastering some vocabulary and committing a few useful phrases to memory is not as hard as it may seem. Here are Mundana’s suggestions for some of the ways you might break down that frustrating language barrier.

Before you go

Attend a language class in your local area


In some areas, language classes are held in community centres and schools during the evening. That means even if you work all day you might be able to fit in a few sessions before your trip. Having a teacher guide you through the basics in-person will help improve your confidence. They can help with pronunciation. That means even your most heavily accented attempts to converse won’t be met with furrowed brows. Being part of a class of beginners makes it easier, too. If you all get along, you might continue after your trip for the company – the language barrier could be the catalyst for some new friendships.

Read your guide book right to the end

Some of us still carry a guide book when we travel and some publishers include a vocabulary list. It’s often right at the back, meaning it is easy to overlook. However, it’s probably there, and often, this section is arranged by theme for convenience. As you’re carrying the book anyway, you may as well take a look while you do your trip research. Take a few words at a time and practise until you master them. The language barrier will melt away as your vocabulary increases.

Use an app to get some words and phrases under your belt

Even if you can only spare a few minutes a day, that’s enough to get a few words of a new language under your belt. Apps such as Duolingo and LENGO make the language barrier seem a pushover – learning the basics can be a lot of fun. They also send encouraging messages for those who stick at it. Try to pick up a few handy phrases to help you say hello and goodbye, please and thank you, count to ten and order a drink in a café. Making the effort will often endear you to the locals. They will be more patient when your limited vocabulary runs out.

Watch TV and videos online

There are plenty of foreign language television series and films these days. It’s an eye-opener how much you pick up just by absorption. But to be serious, consider using the subtitles so that when you hear commonly used words and phrases they’ll be translated for you there and then. Take a look at the content offered by your streaming channel or check the menu on your Blu-ray disks or DVDs to switch the language. Re-watching your favourite film means you already know the story. Nevertheless, you’ll have the added benefit of beginning to break down the language barrier for next time you travel.

While you’re there

Carry a good old-fashioned phrase book

Pixabay/Oli Lynch

Sometimes, the subject matter of a conversation is likely to be fairly well defined. This includes situations such as checking into a hotel, ordering a drink or buying an admission ticket to a visitor attraction. For these, you might be able to do your homework in advance – it’s a productive way of spending a long plane journey. Read the relevant section in a phrase book and try to memorise some simple phrases. Even if you don’t manage the whole topic in the other language, chances are the people you’re interacting with will be delighted that you’ve made an effort.

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Ask your hotel for a business card

One of the most stressful things about arriving in an unfamiliar city is finding your way to the hotel under your own steam. Of course, an airport transfer can make that problem go away. But what impact does the language barrier have when you want to leave the hotel to go sightseeing or have a night out? Being able to find your way back again is really important but sometimes, names can be hard to pronounce. If you’re concerned you might need to ask someone and don’t have the vocabulary, ask your hotel for a business card that you can carry with you. Simply show the taxi driver and they’ll do the rest.

Use pre-printed pictures

This is particularly helpful when the country you’re travelling in has a different alphabet to your own. Think about some of the things you may need while you are exploring, such as the train station, public toilet or pharmacy. Before you leave home, find pictures of these things online and laminate them into wallet-sized cards that you can carry with you while you’re away. Alternatively, carry a notepad and pen so that you can draw whatever you need as you go along. If you can’t make yourself understood in the usual way, they’re a handy last resort. They’ll also save you the embarrassment of having to mime.

Use a translation tool on your phone

Unsplash/Paul Hanaoka

Often, you won’t know which words you’ll need until you’re presented with something you don’t understand – a restaurant menu, information board or a sign in a shop window. Today’s technology is really helpful in such circumstances, especially Google Translate. Simply point your smartphone at the hitherto unintelligible text. Using the camera function, wait while it comes up with the equivalent in your own language. You can also ask someone to speak into your phone and the same app will translate those words onto the screen almost in real time. Quicker than typing text, it’s a real game changer.

Don’t be afraid to ask

If all else fails, try to find someone who might speak your language – or at least one that you can understand. Even just a few words might help you get the gist of what you’re asking across. Try to second guess who might be better able to help you translate. Perhaps you could find a student to ask, or a person whose job is in hospitality such as a hotel receptionist or someone who works on a tourist information desk. It’s not foolproof, but it’s worth a shot.

Some things are easiest left to the professionals. So, rather than risk a miscommunication when it comes to something important like travel tickets or a hotel room, ask Mundana to make the arrangements for you.

Language barrier? What language barrier?

written by Julia Hammond

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