The Reality Of Language Barriers

Never let language barriers in the way of travel; embrace communicative shortcomings.

MacEeagon Voyce India
Three young Indian men soliciting my travel companion Marios in Hindi at the Amber Fort in Jaipur. PHOTO MACEAGON VOYCE

Language barriers are a daunting impediment to travel, and there’s little doubt that the difficulty they give people has deterred many-a-potential-traveler from traveling at all. But there is something special about feeling completely foreign in another country; in fact, that’s kind of the point: to extract oneself from all comforts and experience and appreciate a way of life previously unimagined from our pleasantly snug homes.

After you’ve made the decision to venture out into the world, and once you have disembarked from your vehicle of choice in a strange new land, you will probably feel an initial shock of profound uncertainty and unfamiliarity. In the words of travel author Bill Bryson:

Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.

The advent of the Internet has provided a technological crutch to travelers that has attenuated culture shock, but it’s still quite tangible. Wi-Fi may be readily available in coffee shops all over the globe, yet it’s often not conveniently accessible and, coupled with the exorbitant expense of global data plans, you might still need to be creative to figure out how to get from the airport to your hostel. And from your hostel to that incredible mountain you want to climb. But you’ll get there; there may be hiccups along the way but you’ll get to the top of that mountain. And then, you’ll gaze out over the spectacular expanse of this new place and wonder how a language barrier could ever deter you from being there. So revel in that initial feeling of unfamiliarity, because it is a rare opportunity of hesitation, one that forces you to think outside the box to find methods of communication that transcend language. There are many, and once you discover them, understanding and awe will be there waiting for you.

I began an European backpacking trip last year in Istanbul. I had a reservation to stay with a lady in the Fatih District, one of the older parts of the city. I knew the approximate location of her apartment, but after taking the subway from the airport to her neighborhood, I found myself lost in a Turkish city with no Turkish to speak of (and no WiFi). It was unnerving at first to believe myself to be choked off from communication, but the amount of dialogue that can be exchanged without speaking may surprise you. I interacted with restaurant hosts, street vendors, various passer-bys, and, after much hand gesturing and pointing, I finally found my host’s home. I had successfully accomplished communication without needing the amenity of a shared language. And that was a strangely empowering feeling.

MacEeagon Voyce Istanbul
Turkish residents approaching the Blue Mosque for the call to prayer. PHOTO MACEAGON VOYCE

These types of interaction happen all the time when language is unavailable, and they are a nice reminder that the human connection itself transcends language. In a later journey, I stayed with a man who lived on the outskirts of Rome and spoke not a word of English. Each morning and night, before and after my excursions to explore Roman antiquity, we exchanged greetings and I showed him knick-knacks from that day’s activities. Over the course of four days, we accumulated a level of comfort that emanated naturally from simple, peaceful coexistence. By reflecting upon experiences like this, I began to become mindful of the day-to-day struggles of people living in America who don’t have English in their linguistic arsenal, and now I could empathize with them. I have since realized that this example only touches the surface of the empathy that can be gained through travel, for there you are witnessing the plights and hallmarks of a culture that have until now only been transmitted to you via various media outlets—but that is a large topic for a different article.

There is beauty in learning to understand people without sharing a common language, but there is, of course, frustration too. A couple years ago I traveled through India with some friends from college; one of them hailed from the country and thus spoke Hindi. The one time I attempted to take an auto-rickshaw without him, I succeeded in getting lost in Delhi, pissing off the driver, and perhaps even forever ruining his perception of people from elsewhere. So, while I believe it is impossible to fully appreciate the luxuries afforded by having a shared language without having first learned to cope with feeling completely and utterly foreign, I certainly recognize the benefits of traveling with someone that speaks the native language. It avails your adventure to experiences that can make traveling so incredibly rich.

I witnessed this firsthand recently in my trip to China. While wandering through the alleyways of Changsha with some friends, an elderly man called out to us. Had I not been with Mandarin-speaking companions, I would have stared blankly at the man, shrugged and pressed on. It turned out that he had invited us to join him around his makeshift street fire, and so we did. There were pleasantries and inquiries exchanged in Chinese that were then translated to us non-Chinese speakers. Despite never actually speaking directly to our host, this short respite from our wanders became one of my most memorable experiences in China. It was an authentic opportunity that would have been lost had my friends not understood the man’s invitation. And to top it off he walked us several blocks to his favorite local restaurant, which ended up yielding the best food we had in China.

When the opportunity arises, travel with friends that can speak the native language of your destination, or even better, learn it yourself! But never let language stand in the way of travel; embrace communicative shortcomings. Be curious, be adventurous, acquire empathy and bring it home with you. Become aware of the fact that we are first and foremost human; there is perhaps no greater realization than this.

Article written by MACEAGON VOYCE.

MacEeagon Voyce Street Fire
Enjoying “conversation” with some Hunanese men around their street fire in Changsha. PHOTO MACEAGON VOYCE

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