Overcoming the Language Barrier

Deal Expert, Chicago
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Being in a country that speaks a foreign language is tough, even if you are proficient in the language. Different regions often have different dialects, different slang and different connotations than you are used to.

Reading foreign languages brings up a whole other set of difficulties for many of us.

In the spring of 2014, I packed my bags for a four-month adventure to Verona where I was to be living full-time with an Italian family. I was elated at the idea of traveling around Italy and truly living the Italian lifestyle with a Veronese couple, but I had one major, unavoidable challenge that I was going to have to face; the language barrier. I went to Italy knowing about 3 Italian words and the reality of this barrier hit me like a bus when I got off my plane.

Marina and Alle, my host parents, greeted me at the airport, gave me a hug and said. “Ciao, Kelly. We do not speak English at all.” My heart sank and panic rushed over me. This, I thought, was going to be tougher than I expected.

So, for those of you who find yourself in a country that doesn’t speak your language, here are a few tips that I learned about overcoming the language barrier:

1. Study up before you go

The language barrier is going to exist whether you prepare for it or not, but speaking from experience, it is best that you come to your foreign language destination with at least a few key phrases.

Before I went to Italy, I bought “Italian for Dummies” on discs so that I could study and hear key phrases on the plane ride over. These kinds of resources are especially helpful with learning pronunciation.

I would also highly recommend downloading the free app Duolingo. It teaches languages through games and competitions. You can even challenge your friends or family members on their Duolingo language skills before you go!

2. Bring a Wi-Fi-enabled device with you (preferably one that fits in your pocket)

I can say with complete certainty that I would not have been able to get by in Verona had I not had my iPhone. It was, for better or for worse, my crutch when I needed to look up a key phrase, translate a message, or respond to a question that I was unsure of.

I brought it to every dinner with my host parents so that I could use Google Translate any time that I needed to. In a matter of seconds, I could translate what I wanted to say or what they said to me so that we could communicate and so that I could learn the phrases or words for next time.

I also used my iPhone outside of my host apartment. When you’re traveling in cities, it’s likely you’ll be able to find places with Wi-Fi, whether they be hotspot zones, cafes or hotels. When you’re having a language barrier emergency, just pop in to a place with Wi-Fi and Google Translate whatever you are struggling with.

Google Translate not only helps you with translations and spelling, but it also helps you with pronunciations. Basically, it will be your best friend in your foreign language destination.


Photo from Flickr by vincentq

3. Bring your smart device, even if you don’t have frequent Wi-Fi access

Unfortunately, more often than not, you are not going to have access to Wi-Fi when you need it most, so it’s important to have a back-up plan when Google Translate isn’t at our fingertips.

For me, this back-up plan came in the form of a downloadable, offline foreign dictionary app. A quick search in the App Store will bring you to one of these dictionaries which, admittedly is not as easy to use as Google Translate, but will provide you with enough vocabulary words and phrases to help you get by.

4. Get a pocket dictionary

Sometimes, we don’t have a smart device available to us. Sometimes our devices die when we need them most. For these situations, we need to turn to the good ol’ pocket dictionary.

I bought Lonely Planet’s Pocket Italian Dictionary before I went to Verona and I was very happy that I did. I clung to my dictionary as tightly as my passport when I got off my plane and stepped into my host parent’s car. It was a perfect resource for me when I needed to quickly find a key word or phrase. It’s certainly no Google, but it is perfect when you’re away from your device and need to translate something basic.

5. Be prepared to read directions or ask for them in your destination’s foreign language

Speaking a foreign language is hard, but for many, the hardest part of foreign languages is reading. Sometimes streets, train stations, restaurants, and airports aren’t laid out in the way we would think, and we need to read foreign directions to get to our destination.

In these situations, it is best to know how to spell and say the words left, right and straight in the location’s foreign language. Often times, we will not have directions written down and will have to ask for directions in the foreign language, so make sure that your destination written down and, in especially tricky situations, bring a physical map so that a passerby can literally draw you and guide you to your destination. People are usually friendly and willing to help you, but they can’t unless you know your basic “getting there” vocabulary.

If no one is around, use your smart device. There’s now an app called World Lens that uses your phone’s video camera and processor to interpret printed words and almost instantly translate them between English and other languages. Note: This app is at a fee and is limited to a limited number of languages, so don’t rely on it completely.

Thankfully, with the help of these tips, by the end of my stay in Verona, Marina, Alle and I were having full blown discussions at the dinner table. I could ask Italians on the street for direction, and I could hold my own ordering dinner at a restaurant. I had four months and Italian classes two hours a day to help me learn Italian, but it is important to remember that most of us travelers don’t have advantages to learn a language.

In order to overcome the language barrier, we must rely on the guidance of our resources — our smartphones, pocket dictionaries, or the people around us. It’s not easy to overcome the language barrier, but that’s part of the adventure, right?

Top image by Nick_Nick / Shutterstock.com

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