Tips for Travelers: How to Overcome the Language Barrier Abroad

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English is a well-established franca lingua, the common language on the internet and overseas. Europeans speak English with ease. Americans, many of whom are monolingual, are free to roam the streets of major hubs like Berlin or Florence with little trouble. Travelers are no longer subject to their classroom French or Spanish. Gone are the days of phrasebook fumbling, the dreaded blank stares of locals, the indiscrete Oo ay la toilet?

Even so, learning a few words in the native tongue has its benefits.You might charm the locals with your stumbles. (At the very least, they’ll take pity on you and there’s your in!) You might even land a discount on merchandise by knowing a few choice phrases. If you’re without a guide, knowing the words for “exit” and “train approaching” can be a lifesaver when navigating the subway.

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A lot of Americans grow up monolingual and thus aren’t comfortable expressing themselves in foreign languages and worry about embarrassing themselves. When it comes to languages, though, there’s no better way to pick it up than to just dive right in. The locals may chuckle at your efforts (and your accent), but most likely they’ll be pleased that you took the time to learn. As Nelson Mandela put it,

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

So how does one go about picking up a language before boarding your flight? The good news is that you can start with just the basics:

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Pick up Basic Etiquette

These are the ground work—hello, thank you, you’re welcome, and please. Good manners are not universal in each language—learn how and when to use these pleasantries.

Scan a Phrasebook

Buy a phrasebook and pick out a few necessary phrases. “Delicious!”; “How much is it?”; “Where’s the bathroom?”; “Do you have any still water?” If you expect to shop or more so if you expect to haggle, learn the numbers: 1, 2, 3… Navigating the transportation system, whether by car or metro, you will need words like “exit,” “ticket,” and “express.” Memorize these with the best pronunciation so you don’t have to flip through a book every time you want to tinkle.

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Use the Internet

The internet is an invaluable tool when seeking to master pronunciation and everyday lingo. Try BBC Languages or FluentU. I strongly advocate the use of podcasts. These daily or weekly radio shows are a great way to improve accent and fluency, and there are literally thousands of great hosts available out there. For an online dictionary, try WordReference.

Know your Concierge

If all else fails, try asking the concierge or desk clerk at your hotel. Ask them for tips on specific phrases. If you know you’re heading out to see a famous ruin out in the countryside, ask them how to say, “Excuse me, friendly motorist. Where is the Amphitheater?”

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

You will make mistakes. That’s a fact–Just accept it! You’ll worry a lot less and enjoy yourself a lot more if you stop worrying about it. Have some fun along the way!

What are some ways you use to interact with the locals? Let us know in the comments!

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