Unfortunately, the only language I can speak is English. That’s great for me on a global scale, but disappointing on a personal one of wanting to be multilingual. Most countries I visit have a population that can speak, to some degree, English, but often you’ll need to learn some of the local language to get by. After traveling through many countries where English is neither their first nor their national language, I’ve discovered some of the entertaining albeit frustrating things that happen when you cannot understand the locals.
1. You are confused. Always.
Even if you understand a few words here and there, it never seems to be enough to actually understand what they’re saying and what they mean. Take what taxi? Where? What are the directions? How much will it cost?
2. You often feel left out.
Regardless of if people can speak English, if it’s not their native language, they will usually resort back to their original language and leave you out of the conversation. People often forget to translate and you feel like an annoying person always asking them to, so be prepared for many meals sitting and people-watching while everyone around you converses in a different language. It’s especially difficult when everyone is laughing and you’re not.
3. People love to practice English with you. Even when they don’t know any English.
I spent an entire taxi-brousse ride in Madagascar attempting to communicate with the guy sitting next to me because he wanted to learn English so bad. By the end of it, we couldn’t say anything more and were left to drawing pictures and diagrams to describe what we wanted to speak. Not such a success.
4. You’ll never pronounce it perfectly.
I spent a whole day trying to correctly pronounce “tortue” (turtle) like a real French person. My French ‘tutor’ just laughed every time I tried to get the foreign throat gargle correct on the ‘r’. Properly pronouncing the ‘u’ was completely beyond my linguistic skills. But don’t worry if you butcher the words, as the locals often appreciate that you tried. As a small tip, after saying your sentence or phrase once and they don’t understand you, give it another go but try a different pronunciation. They might understand you if you keep trying.
5. You’ve mastered how to say “I do not speak [language]”
Next to ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ this phrase is one of the first you’ll learn. But be warned that as soon as you say ‘hello’ in the local language, people often assume you’re fluent. Cue this handy-dandy phrase.
6. Even the most basic signs are complicated.
Forget about speaking the language, reading it is a whole other aspect. You don’t realize how much information you garner from street signs and posters on a normal day until you can’t read them and can’t even tell where the bathroom is unless there are the little man and woman signs accompanying the writing.
7. You’ve mastered a few basics, and then they assume you’re fluent.
When you respond with basic greetings, they’re always surprised and impressed you can speak their language. Surprise is on them, you can’t. You’ve just picked up a polite amount to get by then awkwardly pull out your “I do not speak [language]” phrase.
8. You never know what food you just ordered.
I hope you’re not vegetarian or vegan, because if you can’t read the menu you don’t actually know what you’re ordering. It’s always a surprise to see what shows up in front of you. Adventure, right?
9. Even the easiest things seem difficult.
It’s surprising how difficult the most mundane and normal everyday things become when you can’t communicate. How do you say “I want ice cream” in Spanish? How do you get on and pay for the bus? How much is it? Hopefully the locals take pity on you and don’t take advantage of you.
10. Just because you can ask questions, doesn’t mean you understand the answers.
I’m great at learning phrases and then asking them in the language. But the other aspect to consider is understanding what they tell you in return. There’s no use learning how to ask for directions to the center of town if you don’t know what they tell you in reply. So learn a few basics on directions, food, and especially numbers. If you can understand how much something is, it really makes buying things a lot easier.