When you travel, unless you are a polyglot or have the babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in your ear, you will have to deal with language barriers. Even when travelling in a country that uses the same language as yours, there are often barriers — mostly in terms of idioms and cultural differences. For example, when I was in England, I was having a pint with a couple of friends and we were talking about break up hair cuts. I said that I was still trying to grow out the bangs that seemed like a good idea at the time. One of the girls looked at me quizzically. “Oh, you mean a fringe.”
While it is prudent to learn a little of the local language when you visit a country, if only the words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘where’s the bathroom’, it is not necessary to be fluent. In today’s travel scene, more and more people speak at least a little English (handy if you are an English speaker), and translation technology almost makes it too easy (e.g. sites like Google Translate or Smartling, which translates whole websites and apps. For example, if you are in Mexico and go to a client’s site, it’ll automatically be translated into Spanish). Just recently, I met a Portuguese woman who had travelled alone from Austria to Turkey not knowing a single word of any other language than Portuguese. She used a combination of wild hand gestures and Google, and she got by just fine.
The current universal language seems to be hand gestures and the internet (sorry, Esperanto).
In Istanbul recently, a friend and I were having drinks and we were quickly joined by a table full of Turkish men (everywhere we went that day, we were joined by at least one Turkish man, plying us with tea and trying to get us to buy carpets or get married). We had no common language, but we spent a couple very pleasant hours with them, laughing at the fumbled attempts at conversation. At one point, with no trace of irony whatsoever, one of our new friends conveyed that he was shamed by Istanbul’s “man problem”, and then he put his fingers in circles around his eyes and made googly eyed motions, like the cat calls in Bugs Bunny cartoons. The charades, mistakes and confusion only made our conversation that much funnier.
When I worked at a shop in the Australian outback, for a while I was the only native English speaker there. My coworkers were French, my managers were German, and our customers were Alyawarra. The common language was English, and everyone had varying levels of proficiency. In preparation for our New Year’s party, one of the managers, Rainer — who had a solid command of English — was doing the weekly town run in Alice Springs and we had asked him to pick up some wine, beer and Magners cider. About mid-morning, he called me on the work phone and said he was unable to find the cider. I asked him where he had been looking, and he said: “the cheese isle.”
I think, in a lot of cases, the more you assume someone understands you, the more likely there is to be a miscommunication. When my other manager, Sylvia — who spoke barely any English at all — and I would talk, we took our time. We’d use her tablet to Google words, we’d make drawings, point and gesticulate, and we kept asking questions until we were sure we understood each other. She even taught me the accounting program that way. A great many things in life are better when you take your time. Like they say in Turkey, “slowly, slowly; problem no”.
Language barriers can be frustrating when you can’t find something you need or are lost, or when you’re in a restaurant and what you thought you ordered is completely different from what they bring to you (like a friend of mine who tried to order a salad in Argentina but got cow tongue in a vinaigrette instead). But for me, the efforts to communicate and conversations with people from all over the world are a huge part of what makes travel so interesting and entertaining.