The Language Barrier: 4 Hilariously Awkward Moments Every Traveller Faces

by Sasha Selkirk

Language! We all use it to communicate in it’s many forms.  So how can you get by the language barrier in a country which may be unfamiliar? Perhaps by not following these hilariously awkward moments I had! 


 1. Getting a Taxi


Conversational Chinese will never feature on my CV. I’ve tried, I’ve stumbled, and I’ve flat-out failed to hear the five tones in Mandarin, let alone say them.  In my early twenties, I spent 3 months travelling, working and flummoxing my way through life in China. I listened to Mandarin lessons on my daily commute, and my entire flat was a maze of post-its – honestly, I couldn’t move for the things (I even post-it’ed my shoes).

Despite the best of intentions, I sucked. I couldn’t even pronounce my address right. Several unintelligible attempts at getting a taxi, and as many long walks later, I came up with a solution. I’ve tagged my cat, my passport, my luggage, even my diary with an ‘if found, please return to…’ so why not myself too?

Carry around a slip of paper with your address and simple directions written out to ensure you always get home safe! Sounds silly but in China, where Uber is not still available in English, this scrap of paper was a life-saver…just make sure you don’t get it mixed up with your prescription for toothache medication (true story!)


2. Lucky-dip Ordering

Food-options-on-display-outside a traditional Japanese restaurant in the town of Shin

Ordering in a foreign country can be a minefield, and you have to accept the good along with the bad. Sometimes you’ll think you’ve ordered the single-serve and you get the sharing platter – great!  Sometimes you’ll order eggs on a hangover to find you’re served something with a petrified chick inside – not so great…

In Britain, picture menus are synonymous with fast food joints and kebab shops, but in a foreign country, they can be our saving grace. So my recommendation is if you see a photo menu, jump on it! However, until Trip Advisor develops a filter for illustrated menus we might need a back-up plan.

In China, I used an app called Memrise to learn the characters for all the essential foods: chicken, pork, rice, noodles etc. Even if I still had no idea what to call the dish in front of me, at least I knew I wasn’t eating dog (….I think).

We’re going to look at the best travel apps of 2020, and I think every traveller’s phone ought to have at least one language app downloaded. With Google Translate if you take a photo of the menu, the app can even translate the text for you – much lighter than carrying around a dictionary!


3. Putting your foot in it


A little effort goes a long way, and if you get the hang of the basics before you go it’ll show people you care: “Hello”, “How are you?” and “Thank you” make all the difference.

But, even with the basics under your belt, it’s inevitable you’ll make a mistake or two along the way, and that’s just part of the journey. A Swedish friend of mine still cringes at the memory of her first waiting shift in an elegant-dining restaurant in Sydney. Forgetting the English for out-of-season, she announced to her prim and proper diner that the oysters were off the menu because “they were busy making babies”.

It’s always best to carry around a phrasebook for those times when the right words really evade you and to study up on local etiquette and customs before you travel to avoid causing offence.


4. That Awkward Silence


The only thing worse than saying something inappropriate is not being able to say anything at all…

But it happens. There are over 6,500 languages spoken on our planet, and no one person could possibly be expected to know them all. The trick is not to care and not to let it hold you back from making friends.

I once volunteered in a rural village school in Nepal. I prepared for the trip by attending a basic Nepali language course and learning the conversational fundamentals…only to find out that the school children here only spoke in Sanskrit! The only thing to do in this situation was to laugh…and play games. My secret weapon when I travel is a pack of cards. Any game can be taught by example, and card games are a great way of socialising with locals without relying on words.

Another fun thing to do when words fail you entirely is to draw upon your early career as the shepherd in the school nativity play and act. Hungry? Rub your belly. Sleepy? Rub your eyes. It’s as easy as that!


What funny predicaments have you found yourself in when abroad related to the language barrier?


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