How to get over the language barrier in any country!

Since moving to Sevilla for the summer, a city where very little people speak English, my skills at getting over the language barrier have been tested to the max! Anywhere I travel that isn’t an English speaking country I use these skills, but in many cases in the past there has always been someone who spoke English if I was really stuck. In Sevilla, outside of the hostel I stayed at this is almost impossible to find. This has therefore meant that during the times when my Spanish was not so great (it’s still not great, but it’s getting better) I have often had to resort to these tactics! Maybe you can relate to some of these..

Point and wave!

The most obvious one, and by far the easiest! Who knew the index finger would be so useful while travelling!! When you want something in a shop on most occasions you can simply point at what you want. I won’t talk about this one any further as it’s when you want something you can’t point to, something which may not even be an object per say, or when you need to go into detail that things start to get difficult!

Act out what you want

This is usually the next step in trying to get over the language barrier. If you can’tpoint to what you want, then sometimes acting out a scenario can help! For instance, I couldn’t find the isle with deodorant in the supermarket a while ago, so I simply made a gesture of spraying a can under my arms to the shop assistant, and she pointed me in the right direction. Also, I’ve used this in conversations with people when I don’t know the word in Spanish. For instance, to signify driving, or eating etc. Some things are very easy to act out in order to communicate what you want to say. However, even still, sometimes you can’t act out or point at what you want or are trying to communicate like this. To give you an example, my friend had to go to the pharmacy to ask for the morning after pill, after a slip up during the night before, but how to you ask for that when you can’t speak the language?? None of the pharmacists spoke English, and her attempt at asking for it in Spanish didn’t seem to commute. After all, the gesture of taking a pill doesn’t signify exactly what pill you’re after. After many gestures on her part at acting it out, and many funny looks from the people in the pharmacy, one of the staff managed to click on to what she was asking for. This was after going into 6 different pharmacies!

Find a translator

This is the lazy mans option, but sometimes if you need to communicate something really important, like at a police station or for something medical, then sometimes it’s just best to find someone to translate from your hostel, hotel, a friend, or even a paid translator if it’s something absolutely necessary and urgent. I’ve been very lucky in Sevilla, in that although almost nobody outside of the hostel I stayed at spoke English, everyone inside it did. I made good friends with the staff there before I left, so on occasion when I need to do something which requires speaking a lot of complicated Spanish, and that is important, then I can pop back and ask my friends to help out. This has been great for things like when I was viewing flats, or translating some important documents.

Nodding and smiling!

I don’t know if its just me, but I get a lot of people coming up to me in the streets most places I go to who just want to chat. It’s usually old people, or people out on their own passing by, and not wanting to be rude and interrupt with the “sorry, I don’t understand, do you speak English” etc etc, I usually just nod and smile! In most cases they are just making a general remark about the weather, the bus being late, or something else which doesn’t actually require a response back. Just some sort of gesture to show that you’ve been listening. Occasionally they will be asking you a question, and in these instances they just look at you a bit strange when you just stand there nodding, followed by them usually walking off, but in many occasions you can just get by with a reassuring smile, a “hmm”, and a nod!

Becoming a yes person!

Particularly when I first came to Sevilla, I really had no idea what people were saying. I didn’t know any Spanish, and even when I first started to learn, the accent here is so strong it was sometimes hard to understand for someone new to the language. On many occasions I would be asked a question in Spanish, for instance after ordering in a restaurant, or in a shop, and rather than stop and ask them to repeat slowly, or explain that I couldn’t speak much Spanish yet, I discovered that on most occasions it was a yes or no answer! Usually it was someone just clarifying what I had ordered, or asking if I wanted <insert food or drink related item> extra with my dinner. I decided to cut time I would could just answer yes or no to whatever question it was they asked. I’ve always been a yes person rather than a no person in life, so every question I would just answer “si” and see how it panned out. On most occasions nothing would really happen, although occasionally I’ve been given something I didn’t order, or I’ve upgraded to first class on a train and not realised until after I checked the ticket price! It does sometimes lead to variable results, but usually it helps cut time for me, and it can be fun sometimes to see what you end up with!

Like any place where you may find there is a language barrier, learning the language is always the best solution. The above tips are really just meant for those early days where you are just beginning to learn the language, or where you may only be in a country for a number of days. Speaking to people in the local language is always the best thing to do, as aside from it being common courtesy when you are in someone elses’ country, the local people are also usually more responsive to it too. I laugh at some of the ways I’ve communicated with the people here in Spain, and also in many other countries too, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice until you can pick up more of the local language. In a way though, I sometimes feel going through the struggles of a language barrier sort of adds to the experience of travel too. For me, it has also made me appreciate how difficult it may be for foreign people coming to my own country, and not being able to speak the language. I now know how hard it can be for them, and will always try to take more time to help them out.

Leave a Reply