How British Travelers Deal with Language Barriers

It’s not exactly news that most travellers from the UK don’t bother to learn the local languages of the places they visit. A 2011 study by travel agency Sheila’s Wheels found that “51 percent of British travellers said they “rarely” took the time to learn how to say anything in the local language before taking off.”

Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect to become fluent- but memorizing at least some key words and phrases tends to make life easier for you and earns goodwill from the locals.

If you can’t speak a word of the local language, how do you expect to be able to communicate? The results of a new survey from online interpreting firm i-interpret4u show the typical methods many Brits use to communicate across cultures. According to a write-up on Travel Daily News, one-third of respondents reported using one or more of the following methods to communicate:

  • Making hand gestures.
  • Speaking more loudly and slowly. (Note: It’s not that they can’t hear you, it’s that they can’t understand.)
  • Smiling and pretending to understand.

None of the strategies, with the exception of pantomiming (as opposed to just randomly waving one’s arms for emphasis), work well at all. However, only 10% of those polled had any reservations about being able to communicate in an emergency.

Brits, and perhaps English speakers in general, seem to expect the world to speak English, even though the survey noted that 82% of the world’s population does not.

I-interpret4u’s director, Michael French, told Travel Daily News:

“There are misconceptions about the number of people who speak English abroad; the fact is 5.7 billion people don’t; so the chance of encountering a language barrier whilst overseas is very high. The British are notoriously laid-back about learning a second language, most people just hope to get by on a wing and a prayer and that isn’t the safest option if you are travelling with a young family or elderly relative.”

It’s best to at least learn rules of pronunciation and bring a phrasebook, or get a translation app for your smart phone and a workable data plan, if needed.

Incidentally, it’s not just Brits who sometimes embarrass themselves overseas. I still cringe when I think about the trip we took with my American father to Mexico. He actually tried to make English words into “Spanish” by adding  an “el” at the front and an “-o” to the end. No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way!

How do you communicate when you don’t know the language?

Photo Credit: Copyright by Moyan Brenn

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