Fear Not: The Language Barrier

Or, y’know, don’t be afraid of anything.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but you know what? That’s a-okay! I’m here for you, ladies and gents, and I’ve come with the first part in that series I mentioned last week. You know, the time when I begged politely encouraged you to get off your butt and study abroad during college. You don’t have to say anything. I know you were all completely convinced.

So just for fun, then, let’s talk about languages. More specifically, the fact that you might not know the local one whenever you go to a new country, and how that sounds like a massive huge earth-shattering problem when it isn’t really that big of a deal. Promise.

Imagine this: you need directions to the hostel/historical sight/night club/bathroom. You have a map, a pen, a small language guidebook and a charming smile. You also have a local, an equally charming man or woman you’ve flagged over with your fish-out-of-water expression.

Realistically speaking – and provided your destination isn’t on the other side of town – you don’t even need the guidebook. It helps to know the words for left, right, straight, etc., but there’s always a pretty good substitute available: hands! My brother and I made it through Prague purely on a generous supply of hand motions pointing us in the right direction.Cheesy, but true. Universal language, folks.

You can convey a surprising amount just with your fingers. Thumbs up, thumbs down, left and right and up and down – pretty basic stuff, when you think about it, and all you really need to get somewhere nearby. The same logic applies to matters dearer to the stomach, like all of the delicious food you’ll encounter along the way. See something on the menu that you’d like to try but could never pronounce? Point at it. Simple enough, right?

Shopping for groceries? Sliding stuff into a basket is easy enough, though the prospect of checking out can be a little intimidating. I didn’t know my Italian numbers well enough to make it through a Florence checkout line, but the cashier pointing at the digital read-out next to her helped tremendously. That works pretty well in taxis, by the way, provided you snag one with a visible meter (hint: never go around town without a small card that contains the address of your residence. Taxi communication problems instantly solved!).
The point of all this is to show that you can go about your day-to-day activities without saying a word. Sure, it’s a more fulfilling experience to chat with the locals, but that’s not always an option for someone new to the country. Still, if you’re studying abroad with the intention of learning a language, simple hand motions will prove invaluable during the interim period before you get settled with the local lingo.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the ultimate tool you have at your disposal: English. Anyone who has stepped outside the States knows that our native tongue has become a modern lingua franca, the language of commerce and tourism all over the world. The insatiable demand for English teachers in foreign countries is proof of that, but what this realistically means for a student studying abroad is this: wherever you go, someone speaks your language.

Odds are it’ll be quite a few people, particularly in the university setting you’d frequent during your program. You might find too that your English skills make you a valuable person to keep around, as there’s a good chance that the local students around you want to brush up on their own grasp of the language. It might not make it any easier for you to learn their language, admittedly, but it’s a wonderful way to make friends regardless.

And that, ultimately, is the key: make friends. They might speak English, which will make your life infinitely easier. They might only have a rudimentary grasp of it, forcing you to use what you know of the local language to fill in the gaps. Either way, find yourself a buddy and you’ll find your experience vastly improved – for who better to show you the inner workings of a strange new city than someone who lives there?

Those friends will help you along during your time abroad better than anyone can back home. It might take some time to realize that, but just make sure something like a language barrier – no matter the size – isn’t holding you back from making the study abroad experience as worthwhile and amazing as it can be.

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