The Language Barrier


My friend Kathy recently returned from a trip to France. It was her second trip to the country, after perhaps a 20-year interval; for her husband, who was there to collect a journalism prize, it was the first time in France. They spent a few days in Paris, and then traveled up the Norman coast.

“He just loved it. He’s telling everyone it was the best trip we’ve ever taken,” she reported afterward. “And what about you?” I asked.

A pause. As it turns out, since her husband doesn’t speak the language, the entire burden of communication was on Kathy’s (still-impressive) high school French, which was exhausting in a country where — how to put this delicately? — speaking English doesn’t always open doors with a smile.

I could just picture this: Everywhere they went, he sat back, waited for her to figure out the menu or the train schedule, and then enjoyed the crêpes or the glass of Bordeaux or scenic ride that magically appeared. But by the end of each day, she was worn out. Forcing your brain to think constantly in another language is really tiring.

Even in an age of increasingly ubiquitous English, hopping the language barrier can be a complex maneuver. And it’s especially tough for Americans.

Most of us learned a little French or Spanish back in school, but without the opportunity for maintenance that Europeans enjoy (simply because their countries are small and close together and border-hopping is common), those –er and –ir verbs get mighty rusty. When we do find ourselves in Paris or Cancún 10, 20 or even 40 years later, it’s hard to find the confidence — let alone the vocabulary.

In many parts of the world, English is not even considered a foreign language in school; it’s a basic subject, like math or history. And countries with historical or cultural ties to the Anglo world — from Israel to the Caribbean to Singapore — remain relatively comfortable for English speakers.

But hurdles remain. When you break out in tentative French in Paris or Dakar, one of two maddening things frequently happens. In one scenario, the French speaker may respond in slow, careful English, which makes you feel idiotic and pathetic.

My advice: Realize, or convince yourself, that it’s probably no insult to your language skills. Rather, it’s a reflection of the reality that everyone, all over the world, is feeling pressure to speak better English these days; an American accent signals a golden opportunity to practice with a native.

The second outcome is potentially much more embarrassing, as Kathy found out. It may be that your French (or Japanese or Hebrew) is convincing enough that the local responds in an eager torrent of words. Words you can’t understand, because the last time you heard a full sentence in French/Japanese/Hebrew, you were in a language lab and Mireille was slowly explaining to Pierre le garçon that she wanted du boeuf bourginon, s’il vous plaît. That’s when you realize the inherent limitations of phrase books: They teach you what to say, but don’t warn you about what the interlocutor is likely to say next.

More and more, I find that in urban areas and very touristy places, it’s easy to get by with a combination of English and common sense. More remote locations can be challenging, which is where charades come in — snoring with shut eyes for a hotel room, frantic grimaces for being lost — but I’ve also found that in rural villages, there’s usually one person who speaks a little English, and people have enough time on their hands to summon him.

In places with different alphabets, to the extent that it’s possible, I try to familiarize myself with the letters. That way — as in Greece, which generally refuses to transliterate anything — you can at least make out place names. You may stumble upon reassuring cognates, too: once you realize that those scary-looking Cyrillic words in the Kiev airport say “Baggage” and “Passports,” it’s harder to feel lost and alienated.

Then there are the occasions when the barrier involves not words, but body language. In Bulgaria, my husband Oggi and I once approached the pretty hostess at a popular Sofia café. “Can we sit here on the terrace?” I inquired, with a combination of basic Bulgarian and obvious gestures.

The pretty waitress smiled sweetly and shook her head from side to side. The terrace was half-empty. I was confused and annoyed. “We can’t? Why not?” Again, she shook her head no — this time emphatically. Her smile was even sweeter this time. I grew enraged.

“Well, why on Earth not?” I started to sputter in English to Oggi, when he gently reminded me: in Bulgaria — unlike anywhere else in the world I’ve been to — shaking your head side-to-side means yes, while up-and-down means no.

As we sat and ordered coffee — another smiling shake of the head — I thought about the experience. It raised my blood pressure in a way that wouldn’t have happened back home in New York. But eight years later, that cup of coffee is still memorable. And it’s a great story.