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How to deal with the language barrier between fellow travelers

27 Sep 2019

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There are a lot of things to consider when traveling to a new place for the first time. Whether it is for a week or several months—travelers all have a mental checklist of things they need to be mindful of that will affect their trip. You think about the weather, the duration of your stay, where you will sleep, which sights to visit and activities to do, ways in which the culture and customs might be different from where you are coming from, and of course the native language of the people who live there. These are all things that are normally a simple google search away. Answers can be found in a plethora of articles and blog posts on the first page of search results. 

When planning a trip, one of the biggest obstacles people consider is the language barrier between themselves and the people who live in the place they are traveling to.

The fear of not being able to communicate with those around you because you don’t know their language, is a large barrier against travel for tons of people. People will often practice common and important words and phrases in the language of the place they are going just to practice and make things a bit easier during their stay in that country. 


One thing that is not so easily researched or practiced is the language barrier between yourself and your fellow travelers. Solo travelers often choose to stay in social hostels in order to meet new people. You will often hear solo travelers say that they are not often alone because of all the other travelers they meet, especially when traveling in popular destinations like Koh Phangan. If you plan to stay in a social hostel like the Phanganist then you expect to meet other travelers and make friends to spend the day, week, or longer. But with travelers from all over the world, it happens often that your native language is not the same as the person in the bunk next to you. 

What do you do and how can you prepare for the inevitability of a language barrier between you and a new friend? 


Practice the language skills you probably already have. 
Most people have taken a language course for the majority of the schooling. And a lot of us are not put into a situation where we have to use those skills very often. Before traveling anywhere try to dust off the language skills you already have. Be in French, German, Italian, mandarin, or Klingon. You never know what might help you to communicate with someone you meet while lounging in the pool. 


Download a reliable translation app. 
Where your high school Spanish knowledge fails you, you can always rely on the internet to give you a helping hand. It’s 2019 people, there is an app for everything. You can do so much communication through a reliable translation app. Try to get one that can scan images and translate the text on them so you can read every menu and street sign.

Relax and smile (and use a lot of gestures). 
So much can be communicated through body language. The first step to making a positive connection with another person is a friendly smile. I had a friend who had a blast spending an entire day on the beach enjoying water sports with a guy who she met at Phanganist hostel and they did not speak the same language! They used a mix of basic English and Spanish, body language, gesturing, and a healthy dose of patience and were still able to have a good time together just doing something they both wanted to do. You will be surprised with the strength of a connection you can make with someone if you are willing to figure it out. 


Remember you came for an adventure. 
You can plot and plan the perfect trip. But you are not going to be able to predict every little thing that happens along the way. Through the good surprises and the bad you have to keep in mind that it is all apart of the process. Try to maintain a positive attitude and stay flexible and you will be able to overcome any challenge. 

Written by Naja Pulliam Collins