What it is like Traveling Places With a Language Barrier
By Erin Lyman
¡Hola! and a few numbers were about the extent of my Spanish when I travelled to Costa Rica last January. I was confused, to say the least, when I overheard conversations in Spanish between locals. I was lucky enough to be with a large group so I was not the only one who did not understand Spanish. This did not make it any less difficult, though, when we were allowed to venture on our own. I struggled through how to manage this language barrier but learned the best strategies for future trips with language barriers.
In Costa Rica I went to a market where we bargained with locals for items they were selling. Seeing as how the only language I knew was English and them Spanish it was quite the challenge! If your cellular plan allows, I highly suggest getting a translator app. Although it will not be perfect, it is better than nothing and helps when you are in tough situations! Since I had people who knew English and Spanish around me I asked them for help. For the market, I learned how to ask how much an item costs in Spanish. Then I asked the sellers the price of an item. I luckily know the numbers in Spanish up to twenty, so even though they replied in Spanish I knew the price they were telling me. I then would counter back a price I was willing to pay. If you are going to a Spanish speaking country, want to bargain and do not know the Spanish numbers, I suggest learning them. Also learn that country’s currency exchange rate with your countries! That way, if worst comes to worse, you can hold out how much you are willing to pay and see if they accept.
When it came to conversing with others I felt a bit left out because I could not talk with people that I wanted to. I wish that I had known a few more words or phrases so that I could interact with more locals. Even having a little booklet with common phrases and responses would have been extremely helpful! I would have felt more confident in my abilities to speak to locals. I felt a bit uncomfortable at times because when you do not understand another language, you may say something you do not mean. Also, you probably will not know what they are saying. When I was zip lining I was absolutely terrified and it was obvious to those working there. I was the only one with the workers at times and I got nervous they were joking about me when they were speaking to one another. Now, I doubt they were but it is a legitimate fear when you cannot understand a language!
For the more serious issues, such as driving, I was very lucky that I was not the one doing this because I would not have been able to understand the signs. If you are driving remember that shapes and colors of signs usually represent the same thing from country to country. If this does not make you feel comfortable, get directions from someone who is bilingual. If this is not a possibility or if you prefer, print your directions in your language and their language in advance so that you know where you are going and how to get there! Being lost in a foreign country with a language barrier would not be an ideal situation. Essentially, in all situations it is good to prepare ahead. Bring a translation book, find apps, know someone who speaks both languages or try to work through the barrier on your own if you think you can. Whatever method you choose is good, but if you go unprepared you will struggle and it could affect how much you enjoy your trip.