There’s something so incredibly humbling about being the only English speaker on a traveling excursion. As a world traveller, this has happened to me more times than I can count. Each experience has been a bit different than the one before, and each time I find that my empathy for others’ challenges with non-native languages just grows and grows. You see, in the United States, we can get so caught up in the English language that we forget (or simply don’t even realize) that there are over 7,000 other languages out there, which doesn’t even include the various dialects that exist. In fact, English is the third most spoken language in the world, behind Chinese (1st) and Spanish (2nd).
Living in Singapore, a country that has 4 officials languages, English is one of the four main languages spoken. In fact, most residents are able to speak English and one other language. In my many travels since moving to this country nearly two years ago, I have experienced my own language challenges, and feel that I’ve grown a bit from each and every one of them.
In December of 2015, I took an overnight (16hr) train ride from Hoi An, Vietnam to Hanoi, Vietnam. Not knowing a lick of the Vietnamese language, I often felt lost — likely because I frequently was. On the train, I shared a 4-bunk cabin with a Vietnamese woman and her two very young children, one was a baby, the other was about 3 years old. We tried speaking to one another a few times throughout the journey, but the language barrier on both sides proved to be too much. That was one of my very first times being in a situation where I did not know the language.
Recently, on a trip to Tokyo, I was on the train from the airport to the city. I recall my dad saying things to me when I was a child like “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto”, and “Konichiwa Tarasun”, so I could get by on those two phrases. However, I couldn’t be too confident as this was my first time traveling to (not through) Japan, and I wasn’t fully sure of the pronunciation and meaning of these phrases — like why is “-sun” added to the end of a person’s name. So, I Facebook messaged my dad and asked him for a few simple phrases. The phrases that one should know in the language of any country you travel to are: Hello, Goodbye, Thank You, I’m Sorry, Please, and Help. He was able to correctly pronounce and spell these phrases for me, through the Messenger app. which I saved and referred back to from time to time throughout the week. Google Translate is really great for translating, but you at least need to know the context and terms that you want to use.
Thankfully, for the last 10 months, I’ve been traveling with Project Fi. For those who don’t know, Project Fi is one of Google’s babies. It’s a SIM card that works with 4 different types of phones (sorry — no iPhones), and it allows you to keep your US-based phone number while traveling to over 150 countries. You maintain access to all of your phone’s apps, including the social media ones that are blocked in other countries.
This past weekend, while in Koh Samui, Thailand, I was the only fluent English speaker on a boat ride around the island. On the boat, communication was fine, as the groups were doing their own thing, and being the frequent solo traveler that I am, I opted for taking in the scenes, occasionally sticking my head in a book.
When we pulled up to the shore to partake in a banquet-ish lunch, I was seated at a table with one French speaker, 2 German speakers, 2 partial English speakers, and 2 speakers of Japanese. While making small talk with the French and German speakers, our conversations went from travel to politics to sand. When we got to the sand part we ended up lost in translation for about 20 minutes. You see, the French woman was trying to tell us that she knew the island had been volcanic because of the clay that was mixed in the sand. The word that she couldn’t find in English was clay. We went back and forth, the four of us, trying to translate the word the French woman was trying to say. “Sand”, “clay”, “mud”, “dirt” — they were all wrong according to the French woman. Finally, after several rounds of charades, I pulled out my Google Pixel, opened up Google Translate, and had the woman type in the French version of the word she was searching for. As soon as I hit Translate, the English word “Clay” came up, and we all had a good laugh. The two German speaking girls had asked if I could translate it to German, and when I did, they laughed again, as our first guess of “clay” had been the correct one all along.
So, while technology serves as a support in the language barriers that we experience, the friendliness and humor of the human experience trumps all. The technology helps to break down the barriers of understanding, but it is the mindset that we bring to the interaction that allows one to get outside of their comfort zone to become truly humbled.
In my travels, the one thing that I can appreciate is the universal language of a smile (sometimes even a smile coupled with a head-nod, or a slight bow). This simple expression can go a long way in bridging the language barriers that can exist in the simple day to day interactions with others we meet in our travels, especially when you’re the only one speaking English.