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When you are language-challenged

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Traveling gives the ultimate thrill, the most enriching experiences, and the most insightful learning opportunities. Therefore, my simple advice is to enjoy the process of learning essential phrases in the native language, it will not only give you the joy of practicing with the native speakers, but will also enhance your travel experience by serving as a gateway into new cultures, where ultimate learning happens.

I have been to many countries where people are proud of their mother tongue, sometimes too proud to know of any other. My travels are mainly for business, but I make sure to incorporate pleasure as well. 

My recent trip was mission-specific, it required dealing with the locals. I mean the real, hardcore locals, who receive foreigners every once in a blue moon. 

It was a 6-day trip of driving around that brought me to wonder if the term Language-Challenged was ever invented, a state of affairs similar to being mentally challenged. I don’t know a single word from the language of the country I visited so having to deal with this phenomenon made me feel totally paralyzed. I’m someone who is fluently bilingual and loves languages. With Arabic as a mother tongue and native fluency in English, it was extremely difficult to interact since our mission required not merely casual understanding, but also contractual negotiations. 

I was accompanied by my dad who concluded the entire effort as a waste. Having significant language education, then having to resort to “unofficial” sign language to get by is depressing, to say the least. I tended to agree with my father and sometimes just smiled at how far sign language can go between total strangers. 

The reader might think that to be language-challenged is a real exaggeration. We were in Turkey, having traveled from Palestine. The languages of the two countries are privileged to have many similar individual phrases. As a language educator and a strong believer in the power of language, I forcefully admit I felt seriously inoperable not being able to communicate.

Finding a person who spoke Arabic and English in addition to his native language after five days was like finding our savior, a living being from our own species. This was drastic to the point that we made an agreement with this super language hero without necessarily having the best service in the market. What closed the deal was simply that we spoke the same language and, as such, knew what we were getting into. 

With that experience, I chose to write this article on the flight home while all the “notes to self” were fresh in my mind. These notes will comprise my checklist for my next travel, no matter which part of the world I am visiting.

Note # 1 - Learn
Before travelling, do your homework to learn essential phrases in the native language depending on the purpose of the visit. It is really not that difficult to spare a few hours to learn a few words. When in a foreign country one keyword can preciously replace a well-structured sentence. For example, in my case, knowing the word “ikra” which means rent was enough to realize we were at the right property.  A few words relevant to your purpose would save a lot of time and effort and you will really feel the accomplishment when you feel understood. At the outset of our trip, we met a Turkish-only speaking lady with a creative solution, she called her English-speaking friend and put all three of us on loud speaker as we exchanged information. Later, we came across a very talkative middle-aged Turkish-only speaking woman who walked with us to show us her offered service. Just by knowing keywords, it would have helped in understanding what she was referring to even though she tried so hard to explain what she meant, so hard that I thought she should be a teacher.

Note #2 – No excuses
No excuse of being a tourist. Yes! That is not an excuse at all. Some people in the tourism industry don't feel the urgency to learn a second language, which makes it the responsibility of the tourist to educate themselves a bit to overcome the hassle of explaining what is needed. As we rented a car, the salesperson at the front desk was OK and we could understand each other after a few attempts. However, his colleague who delivers/receives the car had no clue of other languages while sign language does not always give you the right result!  

Note # 3 Train your ear
Some languages have a very fast-pace tone to the point eardrums can’t identify a single word in an average-length sentence. It drives astonishment and all the consequent facial expressions do not help in easing away at the situation. It is worthy to pull out short videos online to simply familiarize one’s ear with the sound and pace of the language. This exercise can be combined with learning of essential phrases/sentences to get combo results. 

Note # 4 - Tools
Equip yourself with the right weapon. If your trip requires that you go deeper in society to meet agencies, individuals, professors, doctors, bankers, grocers, or the like, you are completely lost without local language skills, like a GPS not knowing where to direct you. Download a real-time voice translation application (which only solves part of the problem), a rusty tool is better than no tool at all. On our trip, when we asked a person to speak into the application, the funniest translation came out, but it really gave me a sense on how the sentences are structured. In other situations, with sentences that are short and sweet, the application worked just fine. Message to language application developers, there are still tons of opportunities to conquer here.

My notes-to-self are more than that, but I comfortably share these four as the key ones to consider.

Traveling gives the ultimate thrill, the most enriching experiences, and the most insightful learning opportunities. Therefore, my simple advice is to enjoy the process of learning essential phrases in the native language, it will not only give you the joy of practicing with the native speakers, but will also enhance your travel experience by serving as a gateway into new cultures, where ultimate learning happens.

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