Traveling Without Knowing the Language

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Author: Barbara Cole, Ph.D. Traveling Without Knowing the Language

Traveling through Ukraine

Returning the keys to my rented Skoda, I exhaled a sigh of relief. I had driven nearly a thousand miles throughout southern Ukraine! I was relieved that no drunken drivers had whammed into the Skoda, that all oncoming vehicles in my lane swerved at the right time, and that I had not rear-ended autos with no brake lights, I breathed success. I found Odessa’s airport by looking upward to see a plane lowering to land. My worn map helped little given it was in Russian and my Russian was minimal. Street signs were in Ukrainian and difficult to read at a distance.

So how have I managed to get myself from San Francisco to Astana, Kazakhstan to Odessa, Ukraine and multiple other cities alone and without knowing the local language? How have I managed to travel in more than eighty countries, most of which do not have English as the dominant language when I lack fluency in all languages aside from English? And without hiring guides or paying translators?

I assure you that I am not proud of my language shortcomings but they are what they are. I’ve studied several languages so I know some words and alphabets (not everyone uses a Latin one) but I’m no hyperpolyglot. You may want to see the world as I did but you are fearful of not being understood in other countries. You can sign up for expensive and lengthy language classes or hire a translator to accompany you but lots of other alternatives exist. Here are a few.

  1. Smartphones-Download maps, guides, and a dictionary or translation app if you are traveling in one of the more commonly used language areas. Often hotel personnel carry them, allowing easy two-way communication. Cost: $0-50 usd.
  1. Body language and hand signals. Observe them closely. Chinese merchants often communicate price with hand gestures rather than speaking or showing an abacus or calculator. Read before you go and know what signals not to use. The thumbs up sign Americans use frequently would be considered rude if used in Thailand or the Middle East. Cost: $0 usd.
  1. Dictionaries-usually (but not always) helpful. Carrying a small (but readable) dictionary aids in finding the right word at the right time. It can help a local speaker find the word they want to convey a meaning to you. I prefer electronic ones but they can be more challenging for locals, especially in hinterlands where battery and electrical power may not be readily available. Cost: $0 to 6usd.
  1. Compass-keep one nearby so you know the direction you are going. That information can lessen your dependence on maps or others to find your destination. Cost: $0-50 usd.
  1. Remember the sun. If it is to your left, you are looking southward. You can figure out the rest from there. Noon time and cloudy days can be a problem. On those days, take a rest and wait a while. Cost: $0usd.
  1. Know language derivatives. I studied Latin in high school (yes, I went to high school when and where they taught Latin). Cognates aid in deciphering unknown words. For example, the word “Agricola” means farmer in Latin. When I see some form of agri, I know it relates to farming in some way. Cost: depends but probably $0 usd.
  1. Native speaker contact-Contact and connection is easy these days via the internet. Many are likely eager to practice their English, can give you valuable guidance, and will help you learn some essential words. Hire one for a day to show you around or help you with some specific situation. Cost: $0-100 usd.
  1. Develop an inner sense of guidance. Does it feel to you like that isolated lane is a safe one or one where thugs are awaiting unsuspecting travelers? Are the shops getting smaller, thus signaling an end to availability of taxis, buses, and transport? Observe and think. That knowledges comes with experience. Cost: 0 usd.
  1. Increase your patience threshold. Most of us are pretty goal focused, especially when we travel. Sometimes we have to accept that we are not going to get where we want to go in the time allotted. Perhaps we are where we were meant to be and there is something better for us at the location we did not expect to find. Cost: 0 usd.
  1. Read extensively in advance about your intended location. That will help you put together the pieces, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Numerous sites and books can help you in cost saving ways. If needed, ask your librarian for help. Cost-0 to unlimited.
  1. Travel more so you learn what to expect. For example, you will discover that airports are usually, but not always, on the edge of town. You learn that some cities have buses where they move exactly on time while others do not leave until they have a full load of passengers. You incorporate this new knowledge into what you already know, thus allowing you to prepare for what words you may need to use. Cost:0-unlimited
  1. Create a fun activity for yourself with the language. Learn just one new word each day—in any language. It doesn’t have to be the same language each day. You may surprise yourself at how you increase your interest in another culture or history of the word’s origin. Cost: 0
  1. Face your fears about not speaking the language. Try whatever words you know.

Forget and forgive if others are rude, cannot help you or send you in a wrong direction. Everyone makes mistakes and they may have misunderstood you or thought they had the correct information but did not. It is only a miniscule amount of time in your life. Forget it and move on to the next highlight of the trip. Cost:0

Yes, it would be wonderful if we all spoke the same language, did not have to worry about border crossings, and lived happily ever after. Until then, we can remain in our fearful position or we can face those fears, get ourselves out there and have new causes to celebrate. And above all else, we can keep traveling.

One thought on “Traveling Without Knowing the Language

  1. Since able to understand, i ll do it 🙂

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