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Preparing for Travel- Tips to overcome language barriers

tourist-clipart-touristsIn the summer of 2011, I traveled to Italy with a friend, to take a guided fourteen-day tour of the country. Before we left, I bought several travel books to educate myself on the dos and don’ts of the American traveler. Throughout all the readings, it appeared that American’s had gained quite the tourist reputation. In a blog written by Caroline Morse a contributor to the HuffPost Travel, it explains American’s reputation is so infamous, “that the term “Ugly American” has become shorthand for any tourist that sticks out or misbehaves abroad.” The timing of my travels was unfortunate, as the cast of Jersey Shore had just concluded filming in Florence just before we arrived; therefore, I journeyed to Italy already feeling as though I had something to prove.

The majority of the literature I read stressed that the language barrier is often the most difficult task for Americans to overcome. Caroline Morse points out, “American tourists are notorious for just repeating English questions louder when a nonspeaker doesn’t understand.” Another language barrier issue for Americans is they use a lot of slang when speaking. Rick Steves, author of travel guidebooks, illustrates “Our American dialect has become a super-deluxe slang pizza not found on any European menu.” When Americans, or anyone for that matter, travel, it can become frustrating and even cause conflict when you are unable to effectively communicate.

So what can a traveler do before traveling abroad to assist in breaking down the language barrier?

The first tip emphasized is to research the country that you are traveling to and educate yourself about their customs. Female First suggests that you “Check out local customs, laws, and cultural differences. That way you can be prepared and avoid situations that might lead to a problem where a language barrier might stand in your way”. American culture is very different from other country’s culture; therefore, it is important to be aware of minor details such as when two people are first introduced, do they shake hands or bow? Or do they make eye contact when speaking to one another or is long held eye contact considered disrespectful? In order to make sure you are not offending anyone when traveling, knowing these details is necessary.

The second tip is to learn several key phrases in the country’s native tongue so that you can use when needed. Stacey Rudolph from Business 2 Community recommends that you, “Learn how to say good morning, hello and how do you do in the local tongue. Apart from that, learn the right phrases to ask for help in an emergency, directions, way to the bathroom and so on”. If you show that you are taking the initiative to learn their culture, people will be more inclined to help you.

The third tip is to speak slowly and annunciate your words. Rick Steves suggests, “Choose easy words and clearly pronounce each syllable (fried po-ta-toes) Try not to use contractions.” The person assisting you may be able to pick up on one or two words and determine what it is that you are asking if you speak slowly. Stacey Rudolph even advises that you “Find out if the person speaks English before you start stumbling in the local tongue”. If the person assisting you understands English then they can help you more quickly then you stumbling and mangling words and further confusing the conversation.

When traveling it is always important to keep in mind that each country has their own set of cultural customs and not attempting their language can come across as disrespectful and may raise conflict. Residents of the country that you are traveling do appreciate a tourist taking the initiative to learn their language and customs, and Americans who do this can assist in improving the stigma of the “Ugly American tourist”.


Abigail Clark

Graduate Student, University of Baltimore –

Negotiation and Conflict Management Program

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