Travel Tuesdays: Communicating When You Don't Speak the Local Language

View from our villa, Salina
Whenever we travel to another country, people ask us about the language barriers. Traveling to a country when you don't speak the language does present certain challenges, that's for sure, but they're usually not insurmountable. To start, be sure you have a good traveler's phrase book and/or dictionary. Knowing a few common phrases will go a long way.

(If you plan to take an extended trip, you may want to invest in a language course or Rosetta Stone software before you go.  There are also many new high tech gadgets you can look for such as translation apps. More on that in a future post).

Once you have a few words and phrases under your belt, use them whenever appropriate, and try to add more as you go. When you exhaust your skills, you can try asking if they speak English (or your native tongue). I've found that people often have a few words of English. Once you've exhausted your knowledge of each others languages, rely on gestures, facial expressions and the like. You'll find that people are amazingly adept at reading body language. I've had entire conversations in which neither one of us spoke a word of the other's language.

When we arrived on Salina last month, Domenic (not his real name), the caretaker of our villa, spoke no English. We arrived after just one full day in Italy, so we weren't exactly oriented to the language and place. However, we were still able to communicate enough to understand that he needed to shuttle us to our villa in two trips and that he would return for the second group in ten minutes. Of course, we also had an amusing conversation in which we thought he was trying to tell us something important about the police when he was actually talking about the cleaning fee for the villa. Yet, we still managed to figure this all out, with much laughing in between. Domenic wrote down a few words and gestured which helped us figure out our misunderstanding.

A few days later, when Domenic returned, I learned he had 2 kids with his first wife. They divorced. Now he has 3 kids with his second wife, the youngest being the baby we met when he picked us up. He intends not to have more children. Domenic also learned that my husband and I have two children and don't intend to have any more. When my family returned from their trip into town, they were surprised I had learned so much. Our secret... gestures! Seriously... Domenic made a motion like putting on a ring, put up 2 fingers and said "Bambino." Then he made a motion like removing the ring- I get it... divorce! Then he motioned in a way that made me realize he meant his wife, who we had met. He put up 3 fingers and said, "Bambino." Then, "Basta!"

I had another meaningful conversation with a man in Sicily. (I'll call him Lorenzo to protect his privacy).  Lorenzo was prepping the meal we were about to enjoy together. Lorenzo happens to speak English, so most of our conversation was in English. We were having the usual small talk when I asked if he had any children. He immediately said, "No." Then his face twisted a little, and in halting English he told me he had a child, but he died when he was one month old. I don't want to reveal any more personal information here, but we went on to talk about his experience for a while- the details of the death, how his partner responded to the situation, etc. But here's the part that stuck out for me... he was concerned that he couldn't find the English words to accurately describe his sorrow. My heart was breaking listening to him. He didn't need any words. I understood.

I was touched by Lorenzo's willingness to share such a personal story with me, a virtual stranger. He could have simply left his answer at "No" (As in, "No, I don't have any children"). I never would have known. But he chose to take a risk and share with me. As awful as his story was, that moment of personal connection is important to me. We crossed language and cultural barriers to get down to the  commonality of human experience. While I wish Lorenzo never had to suffer so, I feel fortunate that he shared it with me.

So, to my point. Yes, there are communication challenges. Yes, there are times when I just want to have an easy conversation in my primary language. That's natural. But I really do relish those times when I have to work to communicate across language and culture, as well. The key is to keep an open mind, speak slowly (NOT LOUDER!), and use facial expressions and gestures as much as possible. Think of it as a game of charades if that helps. And always, always pack your sense of humor so you can laugh when you're worried about the police and you really need to worry about scrubbing the toilet.