It can be a challenge and frustrating to come to a place and not be able to communicate your basic needs. Even if you have taken the time to learn a language, the embarrassment of speaking incorrectly and being misunderstood can tie up your tongue so badly that you might as well not even try.
I remember on an exchange trip to Paris as a teenager sitting around the breakfast table and in my best French, asked someone to “pass le preservative” which I assumed would be the word for jam. The shocked look on their faces followed by a small chuckle from the older kids at the table made me quickly realize that I had said something wrong. I pointed to the jam and repeated the phrase for another round of laughter. Instead of saying “jam” what I was asking instead was to pass me the condoms.
I have made many more errors since then while trying to master the language, and undoubtedly will make many more, but isn’t that how we learn?
It’s amazing how few students come out of our school systems ever acquiring any language skills, yet children in other parts of the world begin learning multiple languages (including English) at a very young age. How lucky we are to have been born or brought up learning a language that is pretty much spoken everywhere. It gives us more flexibility when traveling as even in more rural areas you can usually find younger people that you will be able to communicate with.
Only 7% of communication is made up of the words we use. Fifty-five percent is non verbal, indicating that even if we don’t speak the language, we have over a 50% chance of being understood.
If you do make the choice to try learning a language, there are many ways to do this without having to spend a lot of money on expensive courses. Consider doing a language exchange, meeting someone who would like to improve their English in exchange for a language that you would like to learn.
There are also many free resources online. My favorite is http://www.livemocha.com, which is a language site designed to allow you to interact and communicate with native speakers. The beginning courses are free and allow you to learn and listen to basic phrases. More advanced courses and tutoring are available for a nominal fee, and you are tied to a community of people from all over the world.
The website http://www.couchsurfing.org can also be a great way to meet and interact with people speaking many different languages. Sometimes people will even meet up with you and show you around their city giving you have a free guide and interpreter as well.
To practice a language, I often watch DVD’s with subtitles or in the dubbed version to keep from getting rusty. This is especially fun with Disney movies as the language and story line is more simple and easy to understand. If you have young children, why not have them watch and learn along with you? Most movies come at least in the romance languages, but with a little research you can find them in other languages as well.
Video clips can also be found on “YouTube” in many different languages.
Another helpful thing to have is a picture dictionary which even if it is not in the language you are trying to speak, it gives you something visual to point to and can be helpful anywhere.
Since the other 43% of communication is the way you speak, your tone and your body language also have a lot to do with the way you get a message across. Have you ever spoken to a baby in a soothing and loving voice and had them smile back at you? Is it because they understand the actual words you are saying? Or are they just matching the energy you are sending to them? You would be surprised by how much can be said just with a smile and a friendly tone.
Although English is spoken widely around the world, I believe it is arrogant to assume that everyone knows how to speak it. Making an effort to learn a few words of another language can show respect to other cultures. What were some of the first words you learned as a toddler? After ‘mamma’ and ‘dadda,’ your next words were probably ‘please’ and ‘thank-you,’ and polite manners were to always use them. Why should it be different when traveling to another country?
How much effort does it really take to learn and remember a few words and phrases? You may be completely slaughtering the words, but people will be more inclined to want to help you because you are making the attempt. Stereotypes of other cultures can be quickly melted away when you make a little more effort on your part.
Above all, remember that learning a language, just as with any new skill, will take practice and a little patience. You will make mistakes. You will be misunderstood. You may even get frustrated from time to time, but the friendships, experiences, and relationships you can build as a result of at least trying will be far worth it.