In India, regional languages have taken second place to English wherever people have the option. This helps us tremendously in work fields and makes our working force internationally viable. But it does put us behind in retaining culture especially in urban areas, compared to a lot of these societies like Taiwan, Japan, China and even many of the European countries like Germany and France.
When I visited Taiwan in Oct, 2016 I looked at the lack of English language as a very good thing, as this allows true global diversity. But it of course creates challenges for us travellers. And I was solo-cycling for a few days, so that led to some specific difficulties too. Here are some fun ideas on how we travellers can learn a language.
Quick Note On Language Roots
If you seriously want to learn a new language, then it would be good to check the roots of the language. If any of the languages you are fluent with has the same roots, then you probably will pick it up quickly.
If you are a fluent English speaker (like me), then often languages with their roots in Latin could be easier to pick up. This is why, when I visited Germany, I actually hadn’t brushed up the language at all. I planned to, but never got around to it. (After all, I was planning my first solo cycling and camping adventure! 🙂 ) But I didn’t find it so tough. Only a few times, I found myself not able to communicate at all with someone. The reason it was easier was because, a lot of the common words are often very similar to English expressions, due to the same root language. For eg: Good Morning in English is ‘Guten Morgen’ in German. Or Good day becomes ‘Guten Tag’. Also, same language root means you can probably understand the script. I can read ‘Guten Morgen’ because the alphabets are the same as English. Of course this wouldn’t help to have long conversations, but it does make things easier for a traveller.
So in case you are travelling to a place like Taiwan with a language with a different root, then you need to learn at least the basics, because you may simply not be able to communicate anything.
- Watch YouTube videos – they can be really fun and are often very relevant for travellers. For Taiwan I had watched a bunch of Fiona Tan videos. She also includes many interesting information like the Taiwanese love for tea. So she even has a video on How to Order Tea in Taiwan. 🙂
- Free (or paid) mobile apps – Duolingo, Bilingua and a few more
- Watch serials and movies with English subtitles. These can be really good to understand the local use of language – the accent / colloquial terms and also mannerisms. It didn’t help me pick up Chinese at all actually, but worked really well with Japanese. Japanese seemed to me to be relatively easy to speak, it has fewer words apparently.
There was a funny incident. I was in a small town called Ruisui in Taiwan and out for dinner. Found a vegetarian place using Google maps, but when I landed there. No one spoke a word of English. Anyway later two boys joined me on the nearby table. And we started chatting as they knew a bit of English. But we both would often get stuck at words which the other didn’t understand. So one of the guys actually tried explaining me in Japanese and I managed to understand it a bit. 😀
- Language classes in your city – a little formal but if you really want to learn, then this works
- Most important: Google translate
In the case of Chinese most of these attempts to get a grasp on the language was pretty useless. I had even taken Mandarin classes in Mumbai many years back, but the only thing I remembered was Ni Hao Ma.. and few other words. So I thought when I go on the ground I will pick up at least some bits of the language.
The accent was a killer. And in a language like Chinese where the voice intonations mean different words, I didn’t stand much chance. Even the simple phrase “I am a strict vegetarian” “Wo Shi Quan Su” which I practised numerous times, didn’t work. Lot of spectacularly and completely failed attempts. Later someone said “Quan” is a tricky word to pronounce. So better say “Wo Shi Su” as far as I know, it means “I am vegetable” though to be understood as vegetarian in context. 😀
It is good to identify some of these terms which you will need, for example I will need to know the term for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘yoga’ or ‘India’ for different purposes. But you may need different words, so you should learn accordingly. This article on Nomadic Matt also gives some good tips on learning a language.
So you may do all these preps but might still not be comfortable. So there are other ways to tackle,
Language Aids During Travel
– get someone to write for you the common phrases you want to use. Or you can take the basic conversational translations from any website.
– completely necessary. So get a data SIM card so you can be sure of this trusted companion. 😉 Remember your translation skills can often be crucial. All utilities like a washing machine, TV remote control, microwave and so on may only have the local language instructions like in Chinese.
In Taiwan, I once put fabric bleach into the washing machine instead of soap! Because it was all Mandarin, so I went with the picture on the bottle label, and it didn’t seem to show any bleaching…. 😀
So you won’t be able to even use a washing machine without either a translation tool or taking someones help. Same for shopping – all ingredients on the packaging may be in the local language.
– having access to local hosts who have some English skills can be invaluable. They can help explain the local customs, culture and also point you to interesting places. Scouting vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan was very easy for me because I always had local AirBnb hosts I could connect with.
Identify potential English speakers
– in times when none of the above work. For eg: Tourist information centres or travel agents or major hotels in the area. These organisations will usually have at least one English speaking person.
And remember we all SMILE in the same languages
At least most languages. Some very rare places consider showing the teeth a threat, so *ahem* smile without showing teeth. 😀
The warm hospitality of Taiwan ensured that with very little effort people are willing to help and go the extra mile to make things easy for you. Even in other countries of Europe I found pretty helpful people, but we can’t always depend on this. For example, a time in Budapest I found the supermarket staff completely non-responsive. It depends on the culture. Some cultures will try to help people who don’t understand the language, but other cultures they find it easier to not respond or even be rude. But usually if we keep a positive demeanour, then it works out. Smile 🙂
And don’t worry, try to be prepared.
Despite all difficulties the predominance of a language other than English is an amazing experience. Down with convenient global homogeneity. Up with appreciating global diversity! – that’s the mantra. 😀