What do I think is the biggest barrier to worldwide travel? Languages. Ugh! Sometimes I just have to throw my head back and ask God if He could have possibly done anything different to take care of the Tower of Babel issue without spurring all these different languages. I mean, really. If everyone in the entire world spoke the same language, wouldn’t you be much more comfortable traveling in foreign countries? Of course, language is one of the cultural differences that helps make each location unique, but there certainly is an advantage to knowing the native language! And a big problem with Europe is that, with each different country I hope to go to, I’ll be exposed to a completely different language.
I have taken multiple trips to Latin America (Mexico and Peru), all which were done during my high school and college years. Because I knew while I was still in middle school that I wanted to visit one of these countries, I began studying a bit of the Spanish language. Having a purpose for learning a language certainly does help when it comes to studying! Fortunately, I had already been given a program that would be a huge help:
Using Rosetta Stone was a good primer for Spanish vocabulary, and I do appreciate that it uses pictures to help you identify rather than English words. (It’s almost, but not quite, like immersion.) This program was my only real Spanish study experience before my first trip to Mexico. It turned out that everyone in the tourist ports I visited would speak in English, but I was able to decipher many of the signs. Still, I don’t think I would be able to hold a conversation at all!
The next school year, I began taking Spanish class, and would continue to do so through college. I did have a bit of an advantage thanks to my foundation with Rosetta Stone, but the Spanish class itself was taught much differently, and I will say much more effectively. I’m sure it helped a lot to have that face-to-face interaction with someone who was actually fluent! My first year of Spanish class was by far the most effective, and although I was barely conversational at the end of the year, I had all the tools I needed to interact with the people I visited in Peru that summer. I’m not sure if it was because I learned so much by immersion in Peru, or because I couldn’t get my original Spanish class teacher for the following years, but the subsequent years did not seem as effective for me. Sure, I learned some, but not as much as I would have liked. Fortunately, I’m not actually supposed to know Spanish during my time in Spain. (Shh! Don’t tell anyone!)
Diverbo is a Spain-based one-week language learning program… for learning English, that is! Spaniards who are book-smart in their English studies, but may not be comfortable in English conversation, come to this retreat where no Spanish speaking is allowed. So how do they improve at their conversation skills? Diverbo gets volunteers from English-speaking countries to spend a free week at a Spanish resort in exchange for talking, talking, and talking. I have been accepted to be on the waiting list for an upcoming program. I really do hope I get selected. Besides, it’s been so long since I last took a Spanish class, I won’t be tempted to utter a word of it. Let’s just hope I retained enough to survive in the city!
If Spanish and English were the only languages spoken in Europe, I would have packed my bags and headed out long ago. But, oddly enough, none of the countries I’m going to are primarily English, and Spain is the only one with primarily Spanish. If I really wanted to converse like a local, I would have to also learn French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, and perhaps a couple more languages. So how to deal with that?
I recently started taking lessons from Duolingo. At first, I thought it would be most beneficial to learn French. But after a few lessons, I got frustrated with the way words are pronounced and figured that Paris is close enough to England that all I would need was a convincing British accent. So, just while taking a break from French, I started the Italian course. Wow, I grabbed a hold of that language MUCH easier! And while I can’t figure out how to drop French from my Duolingo languages, I don’t have to worry about giving up that commitment. Duolingo is completely FREE and you can choose from many different learning languages including Portuguese, German, and, coming soon, Klingon! Lessons can be completed on a computer or with the phone app. And I’m not sure about other brands of smartphones, but with the Android app, you don’t even have to be online to work on lessons! There are some downsides to Duolingo, though. A biggie is that, unlike Rosetta Stone, it does not try to simulate immersion and heavily relies on translation. I also downloaded the Rosetta Stone app, and while I haven’t really used it since it works slower than Duolingo, I probably should compare the two to see which one will teach me better Italian. Overall, I think Italian will be the best third language for me in Europe since I will spend more time in Italy than any other country, and it will probably be useful in Italy’s surrounding nations as well. One problem is that it has a lot of similarities to Spanish, and I’m already getting them mixed up in my mind!
However, with all this language learning, I have yet to set foot anywhere close to Europe. From what I understand, most Europeans learn English in school as it is the language of business, so maybe I could get by with just that. Or maybe hand gestures and miming would suffice. But I don’t know. What do I need to know about surviving the language barrier in Europe?
Note: None of the programs mentioned in this post are affiliates or sponsors. I just wanted to voice my opinions about the studies I’ve experienced and I’m interested in hearing about the experiences of others!
5 thoughts on “How to Survive the Language Barrier”
Most of (western) Europe is absolutely fine with just English. France, Italy and Spain are a bit more tricky, but with your Spanish you will be just fine, people are used to tourists anyway. Just don’t expect exciting conversations with local farmers. Even in most of the rest of Europe people in the tourist industry usually know at least some English. If you want to improve your odds of survival in the East, try to learn a bit of Russian and/or get a “say it with pictures” word book, that will get you at least a lot of jovial response.
Hey Michael, Thanks for the tips! What has your experience been like with the Mediterranean countries of Europe? From what I’ve read from people who have visited the countries I’m going to, it didn’t sound like I’d have a problem in the tourist parts of major cities, so that definitely gives me peace of mind. But I would like to have some language experience under my belt in case I want to wander off the beaten path or get into an emergency situation. Since I’m not taking French lessons, I do have an app that will read (out loud) the translations for some of the most common phrases I’ll need. And I’m actually meeting up with people I know in Turkey, or else I may not be going there at all. So I guess that leaves Greece. A picture book sounds like a great idea for that nation!
I would say concentrate on one language, rather than learning just a couple of phrases in many languages. Stick to Italian I would say. It will help you understand Italians in other countries like you say. And it’s very close to French so you might be surprised to understand some French as well.
I don’t know where you are going to and for how long, but generally I think it better to go to less places and stay longer in one place. My personal experience (very limited) with Greece was not a positive one, but I’ve only been to Athens.
Language wise you’d be fine as long as you don’t assume everyone will eventually understand if you just speak English loud enough. Sign language, pictures and names of people and places are understood by everyone.
Oh and my experience with travel is that often tourists know a place better than locals, having read the guide book, seen the map and being actively aware of their surroundings, unlike locals who just know their routine.
Yes, I knew I would only have three months to travel Europe, and while I know some people hit nearly all the countries in less time than that, I decided to stick with just the main Mediterranean countries for a fuller (and also cheaper!) experience. I tend to be the kind of traveler that turns a weekend destination into a two-week vacation, although I can rock a locale in just one day if need be!
I especially appreciate the last paragraph of this comment. I never thought about travelers knowing more than locals. But now that I’m thinking about it, I have told locals things they didn’t know at some of my previous destinations!
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