While traveling, being able to communicate and being understood can quickly become a real headache, especially when you or your interlocutor do not speak the same language! After several months on the road, we wanted to share our tips for communicating, from our own experience. And contrary to what you think, learning to communicate is not an insurmountable task!
Before rushing into language classes, you must already be in a learning process – that is to say to be motivated, curious, keep your ears open, but above all be patient… Because nobody becomes bilingual overnight!
As far as we are concerned, language learning has been made easier thanks to our active approach and total immersion among locals. Whether hitchhiking or being hosted, we didn’t miss any opportunity to enrich our vocabulary!
Learn a new language
Learn by association
There are different ways to associate foreign words with those we know:
- By similarity between two languages, between words learned and those of our mother tongue for example. Similarities between different languages are numerous and can be explained by the existence of a protolanguage or “ancestor language” from which several languages are made up (such as Roman language that gave birth to French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese but also… Romanian!) and integration of foreign words in the language’s evolution (like the word “Bye Bye” that became universal)
- By words association with a ritual: wishing “Bon Appétit” before eating, toasting by raising your glass… By combining a new word with a gesture more or less repeated, we ended up retaining a few! Santé! Salute! Nas drovie! Živeli! Gëzuar! υγειά μας (ygia mas)! Şerefe!…
- By mnemonic means: a foreign word makes you think of an expression you know? This is mnemonics, a set of methods (verbal, pictorial, sound or tactile) for memorizing information by association of ideas. This is what has served us the most, to remember foreign words which we first found “complicated”.
Learn some basics
During our trip, we always learn a few words of a language. And there are several reasons for that: first of all out of respect, but above all for our personal development. Without learning all the vocabulary or grammar rules (which, let’s face it, would not serve us much), we identify few words that we use very often:
- Courtesies: Hello/Good bye, please/thank you, good night, enjoy your meal, how are you?
- Binary answers: yes/no
- Time concept: before/after
- Field of study or profession: for us, pharmacy
- Few numbers: 1 to 3, and our age for example
With our way of traveling, we learned a little more vocabulary such as:
- Where are you going?
At the end, we end up to be able to introduce ourselves in a very simple way in every language, by saying our first name, our age, and the profession we had before; but also to explain our adventure trip by hitchhiking, naming cities and countries we had visited before, and those we want to visit after.
Free online language courses
If you are more interested to learn from Internet, you will easily find on the web or with smartphone applications free solutions to learn a foreign language, at a basic level. We had tried few of them, with more or less success: Duolingo, ItalkI, Hellotalk, Tandem… (you check our thoughts about it here, chapter “Learning a language”). The main disadvantage is that being on the road regularly, it’s difficult for us to be always connected, diligent and regular… So we went back to the basics: learning a language directly from locals, via a total immersion or a language exchange volunteer mission.
Communicate with some help
If you feel limited by the vocabulary, don’t hesitate to get some help:
- With gestures, miming the scene: 100% guaranteed understanding and laughter assured! We swear: ask for a slice of sheep cheese on a market by pointing at any cheese and imitating a sheep, it works every time!
- By making drawings: let’s be honest, we are not artists either… but in terms of communication, it’s not necessary to have studied at the School of Fine Arts to draw figures or a sun!
- From a dictionary or a translating phone application with a dictionary previously downloaded: even if translations are not entirely reliable, we could communicate basically in each language (and in particular in Chinese) thanks to this.
- From a point it dictionary that we have used very little, but which is very useful as a backup solution (when all helps listed above fail). The principle? Point an icon corresponding to a given situation, such as the image of a grocery store, to ask your interlocutor where is the nearest one.
Note: there is also a t-shirt composed of icons, based on the same principle as the ‘point it’ dictionary (we point an icon to communicate a thought, without speech). Apart from the playful side – which is also found in a point-it dictionary; the purchase of the t-shirt seems a bit superficial and dangerous for a lady who has to point directly on her chest… a gesture that could be badly perceived!
Despite all our preparation and good will, it has happened sometimes that we are totally unable to communicate… We have therefore moved to the universal language: our smile! It’s crazy as a simple face mimic can pass several messages!
To go further…
“Communicate with locals: user instructions” by Be-my-trip (post written originally in french)