After six months in countries where we don’t speak the language, we’ve met quite a few situations where those language “barriers” could have stopped us. Sometimes we have let ourselves be stopped by the lack of ability to speak fluently, but we’ve also trained ourselves in overcoming those barriers and turning them into speed bumps instead.
When we first arrived in France, back in November last year, the very first day we arrived in the small village where our first house sit was, we walked around, looking for a place to eat. It had been a really intense period of moving out of our house, selling it and then driving for 24 hours straight through Europe. We felt tired and insecure, not at all ready to try and order food in a restaurant. We gave in to the “barrier”.
Instead we went to the local supermarket and got some things to eat that first afternoon.
After a few days of rest, settling down to that new way of life, and starting to accept that we didn’t know any French whatsoever, we started going to markets and found out we were able to make ourselves understood anyways. And when it comes to buying things, Anders’ take on it is that someone who sells really should want to “help us out” to get what we want, meaning we shouldn’t be ashamed but try our best and rely on the other person wanting to sell us something. If that’s not the case, we simply take our money and go someplace else.
We also downloaded an app with an offline French dictionary, to be able to look some words up, and we have been using Google translate a lot to find out single words or understanding certain phrases. After those first days of language barriers, we set up a strategy to ask the person we wanted to talk to if they speak English, instead of just starting to talk – we thought that was a more polite way of meeting people. And later we’ve of course learned phrases in French to ask just that, and have at times written down the essentials for remembering what to say or ask for in the butcher’s shop or at the post office.
To us, who like learning languages, and have quite a good sense of it too, it certainly has been a mental challenge not to be able to speak freely and say what we want.
It’s been helpful to meet travelers totally without shame for not speaking a second or third language, who just go ahead and try their best, failing forward and expecting to be caught when falling. Always with a smile on their face.
So that’s what we do now: always smiling, trying with whatever little words we know, then smile a bit more, and expecting some help. It goes a long way! And with our Swedish and English as main languages, we also speak a little German, understand some Spanish and practice a little French. Let’s just say that we don’t intend to learn any Portuguese at the moment, though Wivan’s new found “friend” whom she meets daily at her walks is quite disappointed when he starts taking up conversations about the weather, his moped and whatever it might be. That’ll be a barrier for a bit longer!
// Anders & Wivan