I remember when I was leaving for my first solo trip I was more doubtful than ever. I was scared and I feared that I won’t be able to survive for long. Would it be safe? Would the journey be interesting? How would I make friends on the road? I had a million questions going through my mind. But out of all the doubt, one thing that bothered me the most was dealing with the language barrier!
Last week, a reader asked me on Facebook if the local languages can make his solo travelling in North of India tough. He belonged from the South. In his words “Is language a barrier to travelling? I was planning to travel to the north of India next month 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 part!
A solo traveller is always scared of a new language, and that the language barrier can be a problem, not until he has experienced a few journeys. I remember I tried so hard to learn a few phrases in Dzongkha, using the internet, before I travelled Bhutan — 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 a 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 plays a significant difference.
I have missed a lot during my journeys while travelling through places where the local language made no sense to me. Yet, learning a new language, right from scratch, was never a viable solution. So, I kept myself limited to learning a few phrases.
Dealing With Language Barrier Tip 1: Learn A Few Phrases
Not just I am a solo traveller, I am someone who loves exploring offbeat places. And every two months I find myself travelling a place, where the native language is totally different than the others I’ve travelled in the past. So learning a new language, right from scratch, is not possible. This is also because of personal inabilities (call me a slow learner!). But even if I was quick at it, I wouldn’t have bothered.
However, learning a few basic phrases is important and isn’t much of a tall order. Phrases like Hello. How are you? How much is it? Thank you and Goodbye can make your journey a lot smoother. In addition to that, learn how to count in the local language. Don’t bother with the names of common food because you’re eventually going to recognise them, but numbers help you do a lot – particularly if you’re a backpacker.
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 ‘Important’ to speak a local language when visiting a new place, but I strongly recommend learning a few local phrases. You can moreover impress locals so 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 Dzongkha. In Thai, I can even string a few sentences together.
Dealing With Language Barrier Tip 2: Be Street Smart
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, if you can find one, it’s definitely going to help you a great deal. Most tourist offices also give free maps 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 are more likely to help you out.
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!