The Language Barrier

The Language Barrier

To communicate effectively is undoubtedly one of the most important life skills anyone can possess. As a hobo, this is closely followed by other useful skills – like being able to sleep on 36-hour bus rides and knowing when to tactical vom – but in a real-world sense there is no denying the age old saying “communication is key” has a bit of substance behind it.

For many travellers, half the lure of heading to an unknown country is the fact that everything is unfamiliar, including the language. There have been times when I thought I had treated myself to a steak only to have an omelet set down in front of me, and I can’t count how much money I have lost thanks to my (previous) lack of being able to count in Spanish. I once spent hours in a cab searching for my destination when it was just down the street and in one more intense case of miscommunication, my travel pals and I had our lives threatened in a deal-gone-wrong.

Indeed, these little mishaps are usually what turn in to adventures, and I for one am addicted to that feeling of being a lost kid again when trying to decipher street signs or attempting to communicate with people using only over exaggerated hand gestures. But when you are staying with a local, going to their dinner parties and spending nights in underground nightclubs where the gringos are scarce, you start to realise that nodding and smiling without saying a word is awkward for everyone involved. Not to mention kinda creepy.

If I believed in the word “regret” I would never be able show my face in public again, yet I have to admit there are times I wish I had invested more time in learning the language. Along with the feeling of being ignorant/unintelligent/lazy, I have also quickly become aware of all of the things I am potentially missing out on by not being able to speak to anyone. Understanding the lives and cultures of the locals has definitely been much more difficult and trying to sell bread in the street of a rural village as part of my WWOOFING duties was not an easy task. I often find myself wondering what kind of conversation I COULD have with the person I have just been introduced to… Do they have a lot of knowledge about this place/the one I am going to next?  Do they have interesting stories to tell? Do we share the same hilariously witty sense of humour?

Of course, there are handy little language applications and phrase books that allow you to always have a translator tucked away in your pocket. These can help you with important expressions such as “Un boleto a Cancún, por favor” (one ticket to Cancún, please) and my personal favourite, “No me toques ahí, voy a terminar mi mismo” (Don’t touch me there, I will finish myself – Thanks Lonely Planet). Still, when you are sitting around a dinner table and people are spitting out words in a different language faster than Nikki Minaj dribbles her nonsense, being able to say “Hello, how are you?” doesn’t exactly make for deep discussion.

Even after trying lessons for a couple of weeks, new-found knowledge can diminish quickly (except for when intoxicated, everyone is muy fluent with a few piscos under their belt) because most conversations are still in English. This is thanks to other travellers doing the hard yards and learning our language before we can fully understand their own. Obviously this highlights the fact that while travelling in hostels, you may never even have to open your trusty phrase book, let alone speak one word of anything but English, and you are still going to have a cracking time… there would be something wrong with you if you didn’t. But I can’t help but wonder the amount of rad shit that I never got to discover, or what stones have been left unturned thanks to my lack of being able to communicate properly.

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