Language Barriers While Travelling? What Language Barriers?

“Language is the biggest barrier to human progress because language is an encyclopedia of ignorance.  Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old fashioned way.”  Edward de Bono

When I tell people that I accept invitations from fans to stay with them in countries all over the world … they often look at me like I am insane. Then they stare at the bipeds like they are completely mad. But, honestly it’s really just a kind of couch surfing, with an added 2 or more years of chatter on Facebook to break down the barriers.  We never feel like strangers on our first face to face meetings with our hosts.

Admittedly, up until now we have gone mostly to the US on these little trips. Off to the Redlands to stay with Kiki and Alex, or Miami to stay with Anastasia and George or to Texas to visit Marlene and Stewart. And frankly, no one was overly concerned or worried after all “they speak English”.

But all that changed when we accepted a most gracious offer from Radmila, Slavcho and Pepi to visit them in … Bulgaria.  Suddenly the eyebrows rose all around, often followed by: “But … how will you communicate?”

The thing is Dear Reader, people are constantly forgetting that verbal communication accounts for only a fraction of your exchange with others, human or not. I have never seen my bipeds not manage to get a point across when in foreign lands.  Not in Greece, not in Italy … and not in Bulgaria.  Plus, our hosts speak enough English that it really wasn’t going to be a huge problem. Between their English, our body language and Google translate on our phones; we knew we would manage just fine.

In fact I would say we had fun! Here is why.

When you don’t know the words to speak, you have to get physical!  This means letting go of your ego and any fear of “looking silly”.  Essentially, you end up playing a very long game of charades. It is amazing how fast the awkwardness of a new meeting crumbles when you have to gesticulate to be understood!  You also have to touch more. Oddly, humans seem to feel that you have to really know a person very well to touch them. But when you don’t know how to say “thank you” or “I am sorry that happened to you” in words … what do you do? You hug, and hugs are really good for you!  You end up touching a hand in compassion, you can point to a nose and ask “ok?” to find out if a nasty cold is any better …  and on and on. This is stuff us canines understand instinctively.  If I put my head in your lap, give your fingers a simple lick or curl up in the crook of your arm you would know I like you. No words needed… right?

That is how, within a very short time you have a sense of intimacy that would normally take much longer to develop when you have a large vocabulary at your finger… ummm… lip tips.  And of course when your communication is based on being very physical you also let loose and do the silliest things because you know you have an audience… and because you can’t be funny with words by telling jokes.

So … this happens:


Ummm ... yeah I don't know either ... Love?


The "Monkey Walk" - a cure for taking life seriously!


I seriously think that not speaking the language is one of the least valid excuses for not traveling. Never at a restaurant did the language barrier prove to be a real issue; nor at the B&B’s or Hotels either… and not with our hosts. It was a challenge at times, sure… but a surprisingly small one in our adventure.

Because language is so much more than just words.

It’s humbling to find yourself limited to broad strokes and not being able to communicate in fine detail. The magic in this is that you start to see the world in broad strokes too.  You stop worrying about the little things, like how you look waking up and straight out of bed; yet, you feel a genuine thrill at the ear-to-ear smiles of those showing such obvious pleasure in seeing you.

Think about it; how many languages are there in the world between humans?  And, I believe each and every human being is talking in his/her own personal language that has been shaped by their culture, experiences, profession, personality, and much more.  So really, what are the chances of anyone meeting someone else who talks the exact same “language”, even if it is the same; say… such as… English.  Hey! Now that I think about it, I understand the pure joy I hear in Mom’s voice when she says to someone else that she loves Dad because he understands her!  I imagine that “understanding” has little to do with actual words.

As Red Auerbach said: “It’s not what you tell them…it’s what they hear.”

And that is the truest gift hidden within a language barrier.  When you have to stop and think about “how” you can get your point across… you consider first if you should. The space between you and others isn’t filled with the noise of chatter, but only with what really needs to be said.  You pay close attention to the person trying to communicate with you, instead of only half listening.  The words are fewer, but the exchange often richer. Your world becomes an easy to read Coles Notes version without all the fluff and useless garnishing’s.

Its communication whittled down to its core essence. And folks … it’s wonderfully peaceful.

15 Comments on “Language Barriers While Travelling? What Language Barriers?

  1. Even yesterday I was speaking to a friend that it would be amazing to possess the power of multi languages at the tip of your tongue (thinking of Pope John Paul II.) But I’ll agree with Monte that language should be no barrier when it comes to travel abroad. Go for it since it only adds a level of excitement and creates so many more memories. Thanks for the Red quote!

    • I aim to please! And the Red quote was just perfect. I hear you are off to Paris over the holidays … ENJOY!! and you have a translator with you so relax and soak it all in. 🙂 and THANK YOU for the COMMENT! we did a bit of a happy dance over that. Hehehehee….

  2. I so agree with you, Monte… while it would be wonderful to communicate on a bigger level with people in other countries, a hug says and means more than a thousand words. Good quote by Edward de Bono… charming photo of Sonja and Stefan !!!

    • Ah, Ingrid. You are such a world traveller that I knew you would understand what I was trying to convey. Humans can sometimes desire “bigger level” communication so much that they forget how much simple body language alone can express. Of course you have to be aware of cultural norms … but still … a smile will always light up a room! HUGS!!

  3. “I seriously think that not speaking the language is one of the least valid excuses for not traveling. ” – Totally agree!!!

  4. Oh how we worried how we talk to our wonderful guests 🙁 But to my surprise everything went FANTASTIC, because they made sure we understand them – speaking slowly, smiles, hugs, small theatrical scenes for storytelling! How much laughter there was then – ah….. sweet memories!!!
    We also used the entire expression to tell something we do not know the right word 🙂
    I absolutely agree that no words coming out of your mouth are the most important and powerful feelings that you feel about someone! He will surely understand …. <3
    Our dear guests understand our feelings and they echo the same strong feeling!
    P.S. Dear friends – Monte, Sonja and Stefan – thank you for ALL the patience and love with which you listened to us and understood everything we said……
    You were wonderful guests and We love you very much!

  5. Monte… come to Alabama… we speak a whole other language here too… even though it is considered English! Down south our communication does involve touching, hugging, lots of food and fun. We’ve never let language barriers stop us from traveling. It can be a bit more challenging in some places but what fun trying to figure out what signs are indicating! 🙂

    • You bring up a really good point – language can be an issue for signage – but then we just like to pretend we are archeologists and do a “symbol” matching kind of game.

      And … is that an invitation Linda?? 🙂

  6. One way to overcome language barriers on your travels is to learn and use Esperanto. This language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries.

    Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers and get to know people from a very different cultural background.

    • Assuming you see language barrier as something to be overcome rather than play with; it’s true that Esperanto can be an amazing skill/language! Thanks for bringing that up (and your experiences sound awesome!).

      I had never heard of Pasporta Servo … I wonder if the hosts can be/are pet friendly … I think I will have to do a little recon! Thanks for the tip Bill!

  7. Bloody love your attitude 🙂

    We have just arrived in Mexico and speak barely any Spanish, but so far this hasn’t been a problem at all. In fact the locals are lovely. I think as long as yo lose the fear of making a fool of yourself all will be fine.

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