How to Remove Language Barriers

February 23, 2012 20 Comments »

Stop Sign

I’ve traveled around the world and I’m here to tell you that English is the only language you NEED to get around a country. I recently met some people doing their travel planning and I was surprised to find out they had crossed off some places on their itinerary based on the fact that they didn’t know the language. They thought it would be too hard to communicate. I realize this belief is held by many people and it could be one of the reasons why many Americans simply travel to the Caribbean and not to Kenya.

I don’t speak another language. I’ve traveled to 50+ countries. I’ve been able to communicate in all of them. English is the language of the world and you can normally find SOMEONE in a village, town, or city that knows a little bit of English. Granted, not everyone will know it, so when you come across someone staring at you blankly, then try to move on and ask someone else.

Before you send your hate comments, please note, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn another language.  The fact that I only know English is one of my very few regrets in life.  I wish I would have studied a language when I was younger.  However, I am determined to learn one before I leave this world.  All I’m saying is that if you only speak English, don’t let that be an excuse to why you can’t go somewhere.  I hate excuses; recognize them for what they are…evil.

When you do find that English speaker who knows a ‘little bit’ of English, here are some tips you may want to use to ease their understanding and make the conversation a success:

Use simple vocabulary:

Think about the words you are using; could they be understood by a 5 yr. old? If not – search your brain for easier vocabulary! Also be aware of the slang you use. Try to increase your awareness to slang in your vocabulary, and remove it! Even simple things such as ‘like’ is a word that many Americans overuse and really can confuse English learners. “Do you know like where a bathroom is?”

Slow down and stress your words:

As English speakers, we naturally speak in weak and strong tones. The small words such as ‘to, in, and, of, as’ are normally said very fast and quietly. When I speak to someone who isn’t fluent in English I normally try to slow down these words and pronounce them with more stress so that they can understand my full sentence.

Unhinge your contractions:

Native English speakers also use a lot of contractions and they use them at a fast pace. To make yourself simpler to understand always un-contract your contractions! I find that it’s easier for new English speakers to understand when you say ‘I will’ instead of I’ll for example.

Throw your grammar away:

I find that the best way to communicate is to speak in incomplete sentences. English speakers throw in many extra words that make our conversation lively, but don’t actually aid in understanding. Think about this sentence:
“Where can I find a toilet? I don’t feel well.”
Change this to simply “Where toilet?” and then make a sad face and rub your stomach; they will understand!

Don’t be afraid to use your hands or artistic talent:

picture communication

Communicating in Mongolia with picures

Consider the fact that you may need to get out of your comfort zone and do some charades. Many European cultures actually speak with their hands anyway, so they’ll appreciate your actions!  In addition it’s always good to carry a pen and a little notebook.  If all else fails – play Pictionary.  I’ve been able to communicate by simply drawing pictures.  I’m no artist, but stick figures are just fine!

I’m not advocating that you shouldn’t learn important words in the local language such as “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Where is”, “Turn right/left”, “straight ahead”; these are all important to getting around and getting some respect. However I’m simply saying, don’t let language limit your itinerary. Part of the adventure is learning how to communicate with other cultures and at the end you will probably you will feel like you’ve accomplished something and gained some friends!

What tips do you have to share for speaking English in foreign countries?


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