For all the usefulness of knowing a language in a foreign country, there is something to be said for the honesty of a nodded head, a pointed hand, or even a shrug followed by a chuckled ethnic slur. A seasoned traveler should have an appreciation for how everything sounds much more beautiful when you're trying to listen to it so goddamned hard, in an attempt to pick out at least a single word that you might recognize.
Go to any Caribbean Island, and you'll find Gift Shops and jewelry shops galore. Inside you'll see people that probably don't look unlike your mom & dad being charmed by a salesman who speaks perfect English while flaunting sales tactics that would put P.T. Barnum to shame.
Walk down Las Ramblas or into the Barri Gotic and you'll probably encounter some older Spanish Gentlemen playing a game of "guess which cup the ball is under even though I'm palming it."
They won't be great conversationalists, but they'll take you for whatever you're worth with some of my favorite phrases including "It's only twenty Euros," "C'mon, double or nothing," and "I will hit you with something if you even think about trying to get your money back from me."
In a bar in Buenos Aires, there will always be a few bilinguals, as long as it's late and you look enticing enough to be worth stretching a limited vocabulary for.
These trite, but worthy examples all share something in common; they are all business transactions, whether they be legal, illegal or fluid-based.
Traveling without learning the language can be cerebrally intoxicating; like a space traveler stepping foot onto a new earth only to discover that the atmosphere makes you high. Suddenly every experience is a thousand times more rewarding.
While a trip to the local market is the most mundane thing you can do on a Sunday Morning in your hometown, try it in a place where you can't speak a single word. Finding a bran muffin for breakfast just became a magical experience that will be met with sneers, eye rolls, and flaccid attempts at assistance and "customer service".
Then, if you're really talented, you can practice your skills in the fine arts of Pointing, Hand Gestures & Pantomime. Without a doubt, you will have what will be the sweetest bran you've ever tasted. Yummy!
To prepare for this communication without language, get your mind focused on the culture. Watch a movie from your destination, preferably a young, hip and modern movie. Make sure it's not dubbed, and then turn the subtitles off. Make yourself watch the movie all the way through. Watch carefully and try to figure out the plot and the characters' motivations as best as you can. Believe me, the art of conversation, and the art of film are visual mediums which are not so far apart.
Traveling without the local language doesn't have to be taxing all of the time. One of my favorite experiences while traveling occurred while staying in a beach town in Costa Rica. I was fortunate enough to have been there for a celebration that the locals were having in honor of the founding of the town.
No major pomp & circumstance here. Instead we find a rodeo for the local cowboys to show off their roping skills, a small carnival with the same rides at every carnival in every country, and a makeshift dancehall tent.
It was late into the night when I noticed a glance from a lady on the other side of the seated area. After our exchange she went back to quietly watch the dancers and tap her toes. Only one more beer of confidence later and I would have enough cajones to approach her.
Had I spoken as much Spanish as I do now, I would have walked up to her, made a sad excuse for a pick-up line, and any dancing thereafter would have been out of pity.
Instead, I approached her coolly and calmly, gestured my hand towards her and smiled. She smiled back and from then on, only my excruciatingly poor dancing skills were left to embarrass me.
Pictures help. And the Point it: Traveler's Language Kit Published by Graf Editions is a brilliant and portable book with pictures of any item one could conceivably be looking for while traveling. It can be an indispensable tool after your attempted gesticulations and slurred pronunciations have misled you.
I should (but won't) preface all of this by saying that going to a foreign country with absolutely zero knowledge of the local languages or customs is tantamount to stupidity. One should know what to wear, where to go, and what to avoid. Don't forget to learn important phrases such as "where is the bathroom,", "call the police" & "I'd like a beer and a sandwich, please."
Or, more likely, "I'd like a beer," "where is the bathroom?" and "Should it be that color red?"
If you're going to a place in total ignorance, you're asking for a world of trouble. And expect that you're going to leave knowing just as little as you knew before walking into it.
All that being said, this year I traveled to Argentina and spent a year studying Spanish to prepare. I found my ability to communicate with locals, even if on a greatly hindered pace, to be incredibly rewarding. If I hadn't bothered to learn the language, I believe I still would have had a great time.
One of the main reasons why I suggest learning the culture before the language is that communication is one of the biggest barriers people face when traveling abroad. And for me at least, it's an excruciating process just trying to get down basic interrogative pronouns such as who, what, when & where, and sometimes why.
The process of preparing for my travels is infinitely less taxing when I take my head out of the language book and pour my efforts into planning my travel route. Get your maps, get your guidebooks and study them closely. When you finally touch down on foreign soil, you will still be able to find your way around. And who knows, you might even recognize a word or two. The surprises are what make an adventure.
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