I remember when I was leaving for my first solo trip I was more doubtful than ever. I couldn’t decide a thing. I thought I was unprepared. I was scared and I feared I won’t be able to survive for long. And such fears are only natural. Travelling alone for the first time can be doubtful. It forces us to overthink. Would it be safe? Would the journey be interesting? What would people think? People have all kind of doubts.
Last week, a reader asked me on Facebook if his language can make his solo travelling in North of India, tough. He belonged from the South. In his words “Is language a barrier for travelling? I was planning to travel the north of India next year but I don’t know Hindi. Can it be a problem? PS: I am travelling solo!”
“PS I am travelling solo” — his message ended with the most important consideration!
A solo traveller is always scared of a new language, not until he has experienced a few solo journeys before. I remember I tried so hard to learn a few phrases in Dzonkha, using the internet, before I even reached Bhutan — for my first ever solo journeys. But as I travelled a little more, familiarized myself to the art of long-term travelling, I realised that language makes from little to no impact, on our survival. But if the idea of travelling was more than just survival, and you wanted to know the country’s local culture, then language can play a difference.
I have missed a lot during my journeys, while travelling through places whose local language made no sense to me. Yet, learning a new language, right from the scratch, was never a viable solution. So, I kept myself limited to learning a few phrases.
Learn A Few Phrases
I am something more of a long term world traveller. And every two months I find myself travelling a place, whose native language is totally different than the others I’ve travelled in the past. So learning a new language, right from the scratch, is not possible. This is also because of personal inabilities (yes, I am a slow learner!). But even if I was quick at it, I couldn’t be bothered.
However, learning a few basic phrases, is important, and isn’t much of a tall order. This includes Hello. How much is it? Thank you and Goodbye – with ‘how much is it?’ being the most important. In addition to that, learn how to count in local language. Don’t bother with the names of common food – because you’re eventually going to recognise the food as you see it.
All this can usually be mastered within a few days. Progressing from there, to a level where you can get around on a daily basis in the local language (ie. ask around for cheap hotels, make simple conversation about yourself with people you meet, go and bargain in the market) usually requires some effort, and you master that on your own.
So as I said, I don’t believe it’s so much ‘Important’ to speak a local language when visiting a new place, but I strongly recommend learning a few local phrases. You can impress local people so much easily by saying a few words in their language. I can say please, thank you, hello and goodbye in around 20 different Indian languages, in addition to Thai, Khmer and Dzonkha. In Thai, I can even string a few sentences together.
What If You Still Can’t Speak A Word In The Local Language
Go to a hotel: Look for the nearest lodging, preferably a big hotel, which might be most accustomed to dealing with international guests, as this can be your best option to find a person on staff who can speak English.
Find a tourist office: As with hotels, tourist offices are familiar with little English and can interact with unaccustomed visitors. Though finding a tourist office in many countries is a tough task, but if you can find one, it’s great. Most tourist offices also give free maps to around the city.
Look for young people: Reaching out to younger locals always help. If I want directions to a place, or some other question is troubling me, I always go to young people. I’ve found that people in their 20’s tend to be more likely to have studied or remember English. If not, they always find a way to your rescue.
Sign it out: When nothing works, hand gestures, sketches and even funny Indian head-wobbling can work to convey your message. They’re most effective when words fail. Though seemingly innocent hand gestures in your own culture could prove offensive elsewhere in the world. So be careful with it!
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