Cultural Experience | Resources

7 Ways to Overcome a Language Barrier

How to effectively communicate anywhere while studying abroad.

Students are bound to come across countries where English is not the first language but this should not be discouraging! In fact, the challenge of getting around a language barrier is part of the adventure of cultural immersion. With the right attitude and a little language pocket book you’ll be on your way to unlocking the gems of another country. Other travel challenges may seem a piece of cake after conquering the game of language charades.

So how do you communicate effectively when you have zero language in common and still take full advantage of everything your destination has to offer?

1. The Game of Charades

Body language is roughly 55% of communication but you will not truly realize this until you are forced to solely rely on it! Remember playing charades as a kid?  It’s time to put all those skills to good use! Charades will take on a new level of importance as your main form of communication.

Hand signals and pointing will make life a whole lot easier especially when it comes to direction.  Although in certain countries specific gestures are offensive so research may be necessary to make sure you’re able to get your point across.

For example, the OK sign, a simple gesture meaning an agreement in the U.S. is seen as offensive in Greece, Spain, and Brazil.

2. Pictionary

While were talking about games, don’t forget that a picture speaks a 1000 words.  If you’re having trouble getting your point across, draw a quick diagram.  Are you trying to get a specific church or order a particular food?  Can you draw a distinctive feature?  Quick images can help dissipate any confusion between you and the person you are trying to communicate with. Point to a picture from your Lonely Planet guide.

3. Romance Languages

It can be helpful (depending on where you are traveling) to use another romance language that is similar to your current country’s native tongue. Especially in Europe, a greater number of people will be able to understand French, Spanish or Italian due to the similarities between the languages. As another example, Moroccans speak Darija which is a mix of Berber, French, Spanish and Arabic. Students have found it easier to speak in French in order to be understood in Morocco because of the vocabulary commonalities.

4. Common Phrases

Little language pocket guides are immensely helpful and are extremely affordable. It is appreciated when you at least try to speak in a countries’ native tongue. Just knowing the common phrases such as ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘can I have __’, and ‘do you speak English?’ can help you through everyday exchanges with the locals. A few key words can also help you stir up a conversation and possibly learn more of the local lingo to get the real hang of things.  Remember that the more effort you make to communicate, the more the locals will try to help you out.  Communication is after all a two way street.

Elementary School in Fez image

5. When in Rome, Do as the Romans

If locals realize that you’re observing some common, local customs, your efforts will be rewarded. Cultural norms for crossing the street, hailing a cab, tipping, and restaurant etiquette may all be different depending on the country you’re in. Try to do some research about popular customs and manners before you arrive so as to be sensitive to the local norms.  Being observant and courteous to those around you will have a lasting impact on the quality of the communication you experience.  You will learn much more about the culture through polite engagement.

6. Speak Slowly, Clearly and Remove Idioms

If you have a small amount of usable language you’re willing to try, throw grammar out the window! When it comes to verbal communication, chances are native speakers will only need to pick up on key words and will be able to decipher the rest.  Jump into the challenge, you may surprise yourself with your ‘real world’ language skills.  Combine your words with charades and drawings when necessary and you’ll be communicating in no time.

If you are speaking English with someone who has a limited grasp of the language, remember to speak clearly, using plain language.  Idioms can be extremely confusing when used in foreign conversation. Think about how confusing it might be to say “no big deal” or “kill two birds with one stone”. Idioms do not directly translate and locals will have a hard time understanding what you’re trying to convey.

If you feel yourself becoming frustrated when you are miss-understood, take a breath.  Continue to use all the communication skills you have without raising your voice. Not only does this make you look angry, but it is also insulting.  If you are having no luck understanding or being understood, smile and thank the person, then move on to find someone else who may be able to help you more easily.

7. Use your Smartphone

Technology has come a long way and we now carry powerful translation tools in our pockets. Take advantage of this vital tool and the amazing apps that have been created to make traveling easier. There are many language emersion apps, GPS apps and guides that can be used offline. Many times you will not have service in another country, but with apps like Jibbigo voice translator, XE Currency or City Maps 2 go, just to name a few, you will be able to get around without needing  the internet.

Traveling somewhere new where you have little to no language skills is part of the fun of traveling the world and immersing yourself in another culture! It is always daunting to go to a country where there is no language commonality, but it is possible to adapt to the world around you, pick up enough of another language or two to get by, and, most importantly, have a great experience and meet wonderful people in the process.  Because, after all, that’s what communicating is all about; the people.

For more: How to Deal with a Language Barrier while Volunteering Abroad

Haley Ryger

University of Massachusetts Amherst | 5 stories

My name is Haley Morgan Ryger and I am a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I am currently pursuing a dual degree in Broadcast Journalism and Political Science as well as a minor in Arabic. During the Fall 2015 semester, I am studying in Meknes, Morocco but plan to travel around Europe and other parts of Morocco as well! I love traveling around the world but I am especially intrigued with the Middle East. Besides traveling I enjoy eating but I do not plan on trying a camel burger anytime soon.

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