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Traveling is hard. But traveling without knowing the language is harder.
Back in June, I visited Guadalajara, Mexico, and I had a wonderful time. While I was there to experience Guadalajara Pride in the second-largest city in Mexico and possibly the biggest gay community in the country, I also experienced another great adventure. Aka, traveling around a country without knowing the language.
Traveling without the ability to translate is a tricky task, but it’s not impossible. Anyone can pack up today and head over to a foreign country with a foreign language. But if you need some advice before you give it a try, here’s a few tips, tricks, and benefits to traveling without knowing the language.
Locals And Hand Gestures
Locals in many countries are friendly and hospitable to travelers. In fact, many will go out of their way to help people who look like foreigners. During my stay, I was walking around town but got confused about my route. Seeing my confusion, one woman walked up to me and asked if I needed help. Turns out, she wanted to practice her English and help me get to where I needed to go. Two birds. One stone.
But there’s one other basic and handy trick that deserves recognition, and that’s actually using your hands. Gestures are a saving grace when traveling abroad. Using gestures to get your point across is almost a universe language. So if you can’t find a helpful stranger like the random woman I met on the street, you can at least communicate with the gestures you make.
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Rely on Tour Guides & Fast Friends
But again, people are generally friendly to tourists. Even the most stoic New Yorker would stop for a second to tell a tourist to take the next left or right. And traveling can be so much easier if you have a buddy or guide to help.
This isn’t to say that you have to pay for a tour guide for the entire trip. But, taking a tour in a museum, town square plaza, wildlife preservation, or whatever else can introduce you to a potential source for help. Before or after the trip, you can ask your tour guide a few questions like local hot spots, great eateries, or just the translation for a word or two that you should know while on the go in their country.
On top of that, being social on trips can be a great boon. I’ve made fast (and drunk) friends at clubs and I’ve met locals through apps like Grindr. Yes, I’m no fan of Grindr (as I’ve explained before), but I decided to pull up the app while I was in Guadalajara and instantly connected with a guy near my hotel. We talked and eventually decided to meet at a club. He showed me around, introduced me to his friends, and took on the task of translating important info or convo points with me. (And that’s without me asking!)
Again, people are generally friendly, so if you ask for help they will most likely provide it.
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Concierge & Embassy
But what are some other professional resources you can use while traveling in foreign lands? Well, there’s your hotel and the official U.S. Embassy.
There’s a high chance where you’re staying will have a concierge or someone with a similar job. The concierge at a hotel is your guide and aid during your stay. If you want to find a great place to eat, if you want tips on what to do in the city, or if you want help translating something, a concierge is there to help. And if your hotel or hostel doesn’t have an official concierge, most front desk staff should be willing to help these tasks. You just have to ask.
In addition, check to see if there is an official U.S. Embassy in the city where you’re staying (or embassy for your home country if you aren’t a U.S. citizen). The Embassy is there to not only keep relations running well with the home country and the country you’re visiting, but also to aid any U.S. citizens who are traveling there.
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Become Aware Of New Tools
But what if you want to be a little more independent on your travels? Well, if you don’t want to ask for help from other people, you can look for tools that can be of use. Surprisingly, Google Translate is a good one.
Google Translate gets a bad rap, but it can also do a lot more than we give it credit. The mobile map can translate text seen out in the world. If you allow it to access your camera, you can get a translation of a sign, menu, guidebook, etc. in real-time. In addition, you can use the app to help communicate with locals. I once used the app to translate a request for a book I was searching for as a souvenir gift. I just typed up the name of the book, walked up to an employee, and gestured to my phone. Easy.
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Become At Peace With Your Circumstances
But possibly one of the most important reasons for traveling without knowing the language (even if just once) is that it’s a learning experience. It’s a humbling moment to be in an unfamiliar location without knowing any of the words. It makes you realize the complexity of the world and the people in it. Certainly, it would help racists like hateful New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg realize that the English language isn’t the only one in the world.
My experience with Guadalajara’s gay culture and local flair was enhanced by the fact that I didn’t know the language. I was thrust into a world unfamiliar to me and it helped me grow. I sought out friendships with locals. I learned about Mexican culture and language from the source. I even met a cute boy and learned some words from him. My time in Guadalajara is an experience that I will never forget simply because it was an environment I’d never expected before (and highly recommend for others).
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A Reason To Learn
Also, you gain a great desire to learn a language once you’re surrounded by it. At least, I did.
In the past year, I’ve traveled to Japan and Mexico. After leaving both countries, I wanted to learn their respective languages. I’m currently going through Japanese and I’m planning on learning Spanish after that.
One of the best benefits to traveling without knowing any part of the language is that you get a new appreciation for words. You appreciate how you can say so much with so little, you appreciate how others can master languages so well, and you appreciate its importance to the human experience.
Image via Devin Randall
Gay Travel Without The Words?
Traveling is hard. Traveling without knowing the language is harder. But, it is also one of the most rewarding experiences out there. So I say to all you readers out there, grab a bag and pick a country that you’ve never been to before. Jump headfirst into their culture without knowing a lick of their language, use one or two of the tricks above (of course, with personal safety being of utmost importance), and experience the beauty of life and words.