Whether you are moving or traveling abroad, overcoming language barriers can make your life much easier. As someone who had to overcome this frustrating barrier not once, but twice, I can tell you that it’s doable. As someone who doesn’t have any talent for learning languages, I can also tell you that it takes time.
Finding yourself in a new environment, surrounded by people you don’t know can make you feel pretty uncomfortable as it is. When you don’t understand a word they are saying, even the smallest everyday tasks become daunting. This is one of those situations that can make you feel completely helpless.
There is a need to belong that is completely natural for all of us. And if you are relocating, you can’t just turn around and go back home when you feel out of place. It takes digging deep to do what you can to overcome this challenge. It turns out that learning the local language is key to social adaptation in many countries. Trust me, the first days are the hardest, but it gets better. Here are some useful strategies for overcoming language barriers that have worked for me.
As usual, you should start with the basics. Try to learn a handful of words and common phrases used in that region, such as please, hello, goodbye, water, and bathroom. This way, you are showing that you are polite and that you are making an effort.
You should also be able to ask if someone speaks your language. If you’re lucky enough to find someone who does, avoid learning idioms and slang words at the beginning. Expressions that don’t have a straightforward meaning are often hard to understand. Remember, you want to avoid confusion as much as possible, not show off your language skills.
Always be friendly and polite. People are more likely to help you when they see that you’re friendly and that you’re trying. I, for example, always smile and say Hello! in the local language before I say Do you speak English? Be careful not to raise your voice because you may come across as rude. Whenever you feel the need to speak more loudly, just speak more slowly. Also, if someone raises their voice, keep in mind that they are probably just trying to help, they are not yelling at you.
In addition to adjusting your tone, use repetition when needed. To make yourself clear, repeat the same thing you said twice. Try to repeat what you said in a different way to increase your chances of being understood. Also, politely ask others to speak slowly or repeat themselves as needed.
As much as I love Charades, the game stops being fun when you’re forced to do it in real life. As it turned out, my years of practice actually helped me when I was dealing with a language barrier. Using hand gestures and pointing at things helped me many times.
Sometimes, you’ll have a much better chance of getting your needs met by writing down what you want to say. Also, when someone tells you something important like a name or an address, ask them to write it down. I always carried a piece of paper and a pen wherever I went. Once, I had to write down the name of the medicine I needed so I could show it to the pharmacist — that literally saved my life.
The first time I moved abroad, I started learning the local language by myself but I was not satisfied with my progress, so I decided to take lessons at a local language school. Attending classes with a group of students was a perfect opportunity to make friends, gain confidence, and have fun while learning. The second time I moved, I became friends with a local who was willing to teach me twice a week. She spoke fluent English, but she wouldn’t use it unless it was absolutely necessary in order to force me to leave my comfort zone.
Another thing I’ve learned is that I can’t afford to be embarrassed. Making people laugh is not such a bad thing in this case, on the contrary. So what if you mispronounce a word or five? So what if your accent is funny? Don’t worry about grammar either. Do not push yourself too hard since striving for perfection can hold you back. As long as the locals understand what you are trying to say, you’re fine. Just speak slowly and enunciate as you speak.
If you have WIFI on your phone, use Google Translate — one of the most important apps for expats and tourists overcoming language barriers in a foreign country. Simply type or say what you want and the app will translate it immediately. Of course, there are many other apps you can use to study and test your knowledge.
My final piece of advice is to be persistent. Overcoming language barriers is a slow process that requires patience and determination. Quitting won’t get you anywhere. Don’t let a language barrier stand in the way of making friends and business connections and exploring a new culture.
Erica Carr is a stay at home mom that focuses on raising her daughter and writing helpful articles about moving and living abroad. She is currently collaborating with Good Neighbors Moving Company, a local relocation team from Los Angeles.