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If you live on planet Earth, then there’s a pretty high chance that, at least once in your life, you’ve come up against the dreaded language barrier.
Language barriers can crop up at any moment while abroad, at work or even in your own neighborhood.
Sometimes we’re prepared for them, and sometimes we’re caught completely off guard.
The experience is different for everyone.
Some people can take language barriers in stride. They figure out ways to communicate or direct themselves (or the other speaker) to someone who can help.
Some people get annoyed. While this isn’t the most useful reaction, it does happen.
Then there are those who get frustrated, but in a good way. These are the seekers, the language learners. The people in this group—which I’m assuming includes you—would rather burrow themselves 10 feet underground before encountering someone with whom they can’t communicate.
But the thing is, there’s no need to run and hide.
It’s okay to be anxious, but don’t let it cripple you. You don’t want to put off traveling and miss out on great experiences because of a language barrier. The world is becoming more condensed as it is. If you want to get away from language barriers, you really might have to start digging that hole.
So instead of avoiding the challenge of communicating with someone who speaks a different language, take it on. It’s not as daunting as you’d think.
Rise to the occasion. You’ll thank yourself for it later.
In this post, we’ll explore why you should welcome language barriers and how to deal with them, using the help of technology and the natural human capacity for communication.
Why Language Barriers Are Good for the Soul
There’s nothing that spurs human growth more than powering your way through an uncomfortable situation. Encountering language barriers tends to be quite uncomfortable, but the good news is, most people survive unscathed.
Language barriers create opportunities.
As you may already know, learning a language is an opportunity to embrace a new language, and, as a natural progression, embrace a new culture. Once you start taking on a new language, you’re drawn in. You learn what people eat, what kind of music they listen to, how they see the world. You connect with the people, the culture, the country and you become eager to immerse yourself in their world.
These revelations become part of your fabric. You build acceptance, empathy and understanding in ways that you never thought you could.
Other fringe benefits include overcoming possible phobias and building hardcore self-confidence. You begin to see all the things of which you’re capable, that there is no limit to what you can accomplish.
There are really no disadvantages to learning a new language.
But let’s keep the horse in front the cart. Before you’re comfortable with a new language, you’ll still come up against some roadblocks. But why let that stop you (unless it’s a real roadblock and there’s a danger sign and the police are there, then you should probably just listen to them and not get yourself into any trouble…but yeah, let’s stay on track)? With the use of technology, a little preparation and tools that will help you on the spot, you’ll be able to make a quick detour and be on your way.
So keep reading. Take a peek. See what’s waiting for you down the road.
Tech, Tricks and Tips for Confronting Language Barriers Boldly
Equipping Yourself: Technology to Help Get You Where You’re Going
Whether it’s a literal or metaphorical journey, technology has you covered. Thank goodness. The world of language learning is vast, and technology can help you narrow things down.
One useful piece of tech that will help you through language barriers at every stage of your language learning journey, no matter where you are, is the translation app. Translation apps can serve as a quick fix, relieve anxiety and help you take baby steps to knocking down that wall.
Here are some of the most popular below.
Device: Android, iOS and Windows
Number of languages: Over 90
Features: Google is able to translate text, audio and images in a continuously growing number of languages. It’s simple and convenient. With its “tap to translate” feature, users can use Google Translate without leaving apps like WhatsApp and other messaging platforms. Also, it’s extremely fast-working, so there’s no time wasted when you’re in a crunch.
What to watch out for: The translations can be a bit wonky—especially when using Asian characters—so just be cautious. Also, Google Translate is not private. So if you want to translate sensitive information, proceed with caution. It’s unlikely that your private information will be spread across the internet, but you never know.
Best use: Any situation where a language barrier pops up. Both text and audio work well as long as you use clear and direct language, whether it’s written or verbal.
Price: Free (limited use)
Device: Android, iOS and Windows
Number of languages: Over 90
Features: There are many features to this app, so you’ll have to check it out to see all it has to offer. However, one of its main features is that it translates both audio and text, and even goes so far as to translate different dialects. It has an extensive dictionary and even offers verb conjugation. There’s quick and easy access to previous translations and your most frequently used translation. There are also offline capabilities, so if you’re abroad you can get yourself out of a bind without having to scan for WiFi or worry about expensive roaming charges.
What to watch out for: The voice translation doesn’t work with offline mode. Offline mode isn’t always contextually accurate. Also, some of the better features of the app are only available with a paid subscription.
Best use: When you’re out and about. The audio feature works well, so if you need to communicate quickly, just speak into the app and get your translation.
Price: Free (limited use)
Device: Android and iOS
Number of languages: 23
Features: This app is really great for travel. It includes almost any phrase you can think of. It also translates it as it’s spoken formally, casually, in slang and “crazy.” Most people speak casually or in slang on a day-to-day basis, so this is an amazing tool. It also has a voice translator, image translator, tip calculator and currency converter, WiFi calling, and it will even give you tips on etiquette and culture.
What to watch out for: The cost. While the free version is very useful, you get much more from the paid version. Just a few minutes with the human translator can run you nearly $30. Also, the phonetic guide isn’t quite that helpful, so it’s better to rely on the audio when you can.
Best use: Same as above. The voice audio feature is efficient, and if you need to quickly translate something, it also has that readymade phrasebook for your most common questions and statements.
Price: Free (limited use)
Device: Android and iOS
Number of languages: 3 (Chinese, Japanese, Korean)
Features: Waygo is an image app. When traveling to China, Japan or Korea (or if you’re in an Asian neighborhood elsewhere), this is a great option. The way it works is that you hold the camera up to the characters and it will give you the English translation in addition to the correct pronunciation of the phrase. The app also stores your history, and you can save favorites. So, you’ll always be able to refer back to something you might have forgotten.
What to watch out for: It’s only useful for clear, printed text. The app does not recognize stylized writing, handwriting or text on a computer screen. Also, the free version only allows for up to 10 translations per day.
Best use: If you’re in a restaurant, shopping, or anywhere there’s printed text that you don’t understand, then Waygo will come in handy.
Device: Android and iOS
Number of languages: 12+ planned
Features: The Pilot is upcoming tech that’s not currently on the market, but available for pre-order. It’s a wearable translation system that comes with a set of earbuds. It allows you to speak your language and the other person will hear you in their language. It’s an impressive piece of technology that allows for communication without the disconnect of using an app when trying to engage in conversation.
What to watch out for: The thing that makes it great is also the thing that might make it not so great. It doesn’t seem like it will be conducive to casual conversations with strangers. People may be reluctant to pop a strange piece of equipment in their ear not knowing where it’s been, and germs aside, it’s just generally an awkward request to make of a stranger—especially one who can’t understand what you’re asking to begin with. However, only trial and error will tell how this works out.
Best use: Long, formal conversations. You wouldn’t want to use this to ask someone for directions. You should have at least some familiarity with the person you share these buds with.
Thinking Ahead: Being Barrier-ready
Translation apps aren’t the only way to quell your anxiety about encountering language barriers. To be honest, they should really only be used in a bind, because as well-intentioned as they are, you lose that human connection when you’re texting or speaking through a device. Besides, your brain is the best translation app out there anyway, and you should really take advantage of it.
There’s plenty that you can do in advance to mitigate any feelings of discomfort or awkwardness when you know that you’re going to be in a situation where your native language is not the primary language. With these simple preparations, you’ll be ready for what’s to come.
Spend time on language learning apps
There are so many out there these days, more than we care to count. If you’ve only got a short amount of time before you travel, you can use an app to arm yourself with some basic words and phrases. If you have a lot of time, you can use these same apps to really build your proficiency.
Since there are so many out there, I won’t make you look through them all. Instead, here are two of the most popular resources out there that will give you a foundation in your target language.
- FluentU is an interactive platform that ramps up your language learning through real-life videos. You’re able to watch videos with subtitles, getting a sense of how the language actually sounds when spoken by everyday people, and then you’re taken through a series of lessons. It’s a great way build comprehension and vocabulary. It currently offers several languages including Spanish, French, Chinese and more. The FluentU app is currently only available for iPhone, but the website is accessible through any web browser.
- Duolingo is one of the most popular free language learning apps on the market. It currently offers many full language courses, with other courses in beta and still “hatching.” Users are able to start from scratch or test out of certain lessons if they already have basic knowledge of a language. It takes you through a series of lessons based on subjects using images and audio. It’s available on Android, iPhone and your web browser.
Formal instruction is a great way to prepare yourself for foreign communications. It can be expensive and time-consuming, but being taught by a real person can also be a lot of fun. Whether in person or online, you can be sure to find a program that will fit, or nearly fit, exactly what you’re looking for.
You can find anything from a rigorous program with a tried-and-true curriculum or a more casual course where the instructor adapts the lessons according to your needs. Either way, if you have the time, the money and the motivation, classes are well worth the investment for someone looking to expand their communicative reach.
At coLanguage, you can take one-on-one online classes over Skype with a qualified language instructor from a top European university. Classes can be flexible enough to suit your personal needs and schedule, but learning materials are provided and their courses are based on the CEFR (Common European Framework Reference for languages), so you can be sure you’re getting adequate preparation for whatever language-based situation you’re facing.
Research and collect phrases
Sometimes we don’t have the time, and sometimes we just don’t have the money. Not to worry. The internet is here to save the day, as it so often does.
If you’re going to be traveling soon, you can always do a quick search of common phrases that are specific to your needs, like how to get around or ordering at a restaurant. If you’re traveling for business, look up words and phrases relevant to your industry. Meeting a friend or significant other’s parents for the first time? Search for some common greetings.
One great resource for this purpose is Lonely Planet phrasebooks. They cover regional and cultural concerns, some even include “menu decoders” and they’re all designed with practical communication for the traveler in mind.
It’s nice to be prepared with resources that take language barriers into account, and just showing that you’re making an effort goes a long way.
Thinking On Your Feet: Tips for Overcoming Language Barriers On the Spot
Sometimes, no matter how prepared we are, we encounter language barriers with little to no preparation. Don’t fret. All hope is not lost. You will persevere. If you find yourself in an unexpected situation, try some of these tips to help you along the way.
Speak slowly and clearly
This may seem obvious, but if you’re speaking English to someone who’s not a native English speaker, clear and concise speech is key. Never shout, though. That’s just offensive. By speaking slowly and clearly, you’ll help the person pick up key words and context, so they can help themselves navigate the conversation.
If you’re speaking a foreign language, you still need to speak slowly and clearly if you’re not fluent. You’ll have an accent, and our consonants and vowels don’t always share the same sounds with other languages. While you might be saying the right word, you may be pronouncing it wrong, especially if you’re a beginner. The native speaker will know you’re a beginner, so their brain will translate your mistakes effortlessly as long as they understand what you’re trying to say.
Speaking clearly also includes avoiding slang and idioms. Don’t use them in English when speaking to a speaker of a different language, and don’t try to translate them literally into another language. Just don’t. Sure, you may get lucky from time to time and land on a word or phrase that the other person can understand, but other times you’ll end up with a blank stare and the person wondering if perhaps they should call you some help, because why are you selling your arm and your leg for an expensive meal?
Use gestures and visuals
Here’s where people tend to feel foolish. Pointing, waving, flapping your arms like a chicken, it’s all embarrassing. However, it’s sometimes what you have to do to get your point across.
Remember that scene in “Love Actually” when Aurelia asked Jamie to tell her about his novel that she dove into eel-infested waters to save? She spoke only Portuguese with maybe four words of English in her arsenal. He only spoke English. Still, together they managed to eek out that he was writing a “sometimes scary and sometimes not” crime thriller. How? They used gestures. Check it out here.
Aurelia and Jamie pantomimed their way through conversation, because neither of them spoke the other’s language. They got through it. They survived, and then they eventually lived happily ever after.
I’m not saying that if you make gestures to communicate with a person who speaks a foreign language that you’ll meet your soulmate. I’m saying it’s an effective form of communication, and, well, anything is possible. That’s all.
Ask for clarification
Don’t be afraid to do this. People don’t typically like to watch one another flounce about with confusion. If someone is speaking to you, chances are they want you to understand what they’re saying, otherwise, they wouldn’t waste their time. If you’re not clear on something, ask them to repeat it, or ask them to speak more slowly. If you still don’t understand, let them know. They’ll more than likely express their point in a different way.
The takeaway here is not to be shy. The person you’re speaking to will know that you’re not a native speaker or even a fluent speaker. It will be obvious. They’ll expect that they’ll have to speak with you differently than they would a native speaker. They may even use gestures and visuals to help you along. It’s all one big cycle, you see.
Take advantage of spontaneous conversation
It can be scary for some people to casually engage in conversation in a new language. Go for it anyway. Learning a language gets easier the more you speak it. If you have the opportunity to practice (or develop) your skills, don’t shy away from it. We all have that pressing fear that we’re going to make a mistake, or that we don’t sound native enough. It doesn’t matter. Making mistakes and having an accent is all part of the process.
Think about this. When you meet non-native English speakers, what do you do? Do you recoil? Do you scream at them? Do you tell them how imperfect their English is? Probably not. You appreciate the effort on their part. You’re probably even impressed by how well they speak English, and maybe a little jealous that you don’t speak another language quite so well. So let yourself speak when given the opportunity. It will only help you in the long run.
Don’t let language barriers get you down.
They’re nothing to be afraid of, and you have everything to gain.
Even if you only learn one new phrase from the experience, it will be something you didn’t know before, and you’ll be happy you know it now!
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