Guest Post By: Ali Fisher
June 19, 2013 was the first time I needed a translator. I had arrived in Prague, Czech Republic to begin my summer education abroad experience through the Colorado State University’s Central and Eastern European Studies Program. I had no idea what any of the signs said, what the numbers meant, or what social norms were encouraged for effective communication. Before my arrival, I had the privilege of speaking only English and had successfully communicated with nearly everyone in the United States. I had never been challenged to learn another language or taught the keys to communicating with people of different cultures. Reflecting on my experience as an English-speaking individual in a non-English speaking country, here are a few tips for those of you who plan to travel abroad.
Understand that people generally want to help you.
When I registered at the University of Economics dormitory, the advisor’s response immediately indicated that she did not know English. I had been told that citizens would tell me that in order divert conversation barriers. In need of keys, contracts, and program information, I initially regretted not studying in an English speaking country; however, she went out of her way to pull up Google translator to communicate with me via computer. Throughout my education abroad experience, I encountered this same experience in restaurants, the university, the public transportation system and various locations outside the capital. I learned that if you take the time and brainstorm resources to understand one another, foreign-to-you language speakers will try to be of assistance.
Don’t assume everyone will adapt to your language.
It was very easy to assume Czech speakers would try to understand me, but I quickly realized that I needed to understand their language as well. This required knowledge of Czech words, which I had zero background with. I invested in a small dictionary and would learn a few words every night. In the three weeks that I was there, I obviously did not become fluent, but it helped to show Czech speakers that I wanted to understand them. It made it even more helpful when shopping at “Kaufland,” the local market. All the food packaging was written in Czech, making milk even difficult to locate. One time my roommate and I purchased yogurt as a mistake because it was packaged in the shape of a milk carton. Since the store did not accommodate English speakers, we were unable to purchase our desired item and have made the similar mistake on various occasions.
Use gestures for further clarification.
I learned that communicating involves more than talking. The uses of pointing, hand expressions, and facial reactions have sometimes been the most effective. I was in the train station in Venice, Italy, for a weekend trip when I realized I had no idea where I was going. With my address and map in hand, locals were able to draw out which route was most appropriate. Being approachable and open to alternative conversation methods enabled me to connect with German-, French-, Deutsche-, Italian-, Croatian-, and Czech-speaking individuals while abroad.
It took studying abroad to realize how impatient I have been when overcoming language barriers in the United States. When I didn’t understand someone, it was almost guaranteed that someone close by could help me. But while abroad, this wasn’t likely. During school, I was challenged to present a business plan in a group of Spanish-speaking and French-speaking students. We experienced three language barriers and a set time limit, which led to frustration. After multiple attempts to finalize our project layout, we realized lack of patience in understanding each other’s goal was the only thing hindering our success. Allow time to understand one another before initiating action.
Studying abroad gave me a deeper understanding of the definition of communication. I have learned that English is not the only way to communicate with others. Differences in communication styles, culture, and language can produce barriers, but through patience, you can overcome them.