Overcoming Language Barriers While Abroad
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
One of the best parts about traveling or living abroad is being exposed to new languages and cultures. However, when you don't know the local language of the country you are visiting or moving to, it can quickly become one of the scariest parts.
Not knowing the local language can cause uncertainty, stress, or anxiety about being able to get around or do basic things. For some, it prevents them from really adapting to or fully enjoying their new home. And for others, it prevents them from traveling all together.
If you find yourself hesitating to travel to new countries or not being able to fully enjoy your experience once you arrive because you don't understand the local language, here are 8 quick tips to overcome the language barrier:
1. Start brushing up on basic language skills BEFORE you get there.
One of the first keys to overcoming a language barrier is to start learning basic words and phrases before arriving. Learning greetings, how to ask for simple directions, how to order food, and understanding common phrases used in the country you're headed to goes a long way.
Although I'd taken Spanish classes in high school, I lost a lot of those skills over the years by not using it regularly. However, with the help of the Rosetta Stone program as well as well as enrolling in adult Spanish classes, I was able to refresh my memory and relearn many of the important words and phrases before moving abroad. It was surprising just how much I needed to use what I'd learned from the moment I arrived!
2. Download language-learning apps.
Language learning apps and programs make it incredibly easy to learn a new language while on the go.
As previously mentioned, Rosetta Stone was one of the programs that really helped me brush up on and improve my Spanish-speaking skills before I moved abroad to Mexico. Although it can be a little repetitive, it does an excellent job at teaching speaking, reading and writing through context and process of elimination. Rosetta Stone has a number of languages available to choose from and comes as a handy app on your cell phone as well as software for your laptop and PC. The downside is that there is a subscription cost involved.
Another popular (and free) app is Duolingo. Duolingo makes learning fun through bite-sized lessons that help you practice your vocabulary, writing, and reading comprehension. You can also rack up points by practicing each day, encouraging a little friendly competition with yourself.
3. Download and use Google Translate.
The Google Translate app is available on both Android and Apple phones and is a must-have when traveling abroad to a place where you don't know the language. Google Translate allows you to translate between different languages through text, voice, or camera. There is also a conversation mode so that you can easily have translated conversations back and forth with another person.
When I first moved to Mexico, I used Google Translate frequently to communicate with locals as well as research words and phrases that I didn't know or was unsure of. Now I use it much less because over time I started to memorize the words and phrases that I would often look up in the app.
4. Practice with friends and family.
One of the best ways to learn and retain a new language is to actually USE it in conversation! By practicing with other family members or friends who know or who are learning the language, you prepare yourself for having those real-world conversations when you arrive to your destination.
If your kids will travel with you, practicing with them at home will help them feel more comfortable and do better with the language when they arrive. While kids pick up new languages much more quickly, it can still be difficult to immediately fit in or make friends in the learning process. Even after nearly four years in Mexico, my son still has a hard time getting comfortable with other kids who only speak Spanish. However, by practicing with me at home he feels less intimidated or judged when mistakes are made.
5. Get out and meet others!
Once you're abroad, don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and meet other people who speak the language! By joining extracurricular activities, making friends with, and even dating people who don't speak English, it forces you to participate in conversations and hear the language in a natural environment.
When we first moved to Mexico, I made it a point to meet and befriend as many local families as I could. Although it was quite a challenge to communicate in the beginning (Google Translate got a lot of use out of me), I knew that it would help me immensely. And you know what? Not once did they exclude me or make me feel uncomfortable for not knowing the language! Instead encouraged me to participate in the conversations anyway and politely corrected me when I made mistakes.
6. Look for local courses in the language.
In addition to communication with locals and immersing yourself in the language on a daily basis, look for local classes geared toward teaching English speakers. Many places have short- and long-term programs that teach both online and in-person group classes to foreigners looking to get a better handle on the language in a classroom environment. Group classes not your thing? Try joining local groups on Facebook to find bilingual natives who teach 1:1 classes!
7. Listen to music and TV shows in the language.
Next time you're at home or in your car, try tuning in to some of the music and TV stations that are broadcast in that language (the Internet is great for that). By listening to Spanish being spoken on a regular basis, you brain will start to program itself to recognize the words. Additionally, by listening to lyrics and statements in a particular context, you'll slowly start to piece together the meanings of the words.
Long before I even planned to move to Mexico, I'd started listening to some of the Spanish music stations at home and in my car. Doing so had actually come as a recommendation from a Mexican friend who learned English from listening to music and translating the lyrics until he retained all the words. Not only did it help with my listening and speaking skills, but it also helped me fit in that much more with the native speakers when I already knew some of the popular Spanish songs!
8. Be willing to get uncomfortable!
The biggest progress is usually made when you step outside of your comfort zone. True, it may be a little uncomfortable at first, but isn't that usually the case before big strides are made?
So even if English is commonly spoken where you are (such as in tourist-heavy environments like Puerto Vallarta), make it a point to use the local language anyway. And if you make a mistake, that's OK! Worst case scenario, someone will correct you and that's where the learning takes place!
How do you personally deal with language barriers when you come across them? Does not knowing the local language deter you from traveling to other countries? Share in the comments!
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