Ask someone why they would not like to travel alone in a foreign-speaking country. The answer will most likely be because they are scared, or because they do not want to feel lonely. Ask them what they’re scared of and they’ll probably say being kidnapped or getting lost. They will probably not mention the more immediate, everyday emotions and situations that people tend to be afraid of: the confusion when you’re on a bus and aren’t completely sure when you should get off; the daunting feeling of entering a room with an awareness that you are not proficient in the local language; the alarm when a stranger starts speaking to you and you have no comprehension of what they’re saying; the potential loneliness when everyone around you is laughing or debating about something in another language and you can’t participate.
Before visiting a foreign-speaking country, I always ensure I know a few key words and phrases, such as “Yes”, “No”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry”, “‘I don’t understand”, “I don’t speak…do you speak English?” Even if the recipient speaks your language, this gesture of making an effort in their language can help foster good relations. But of course, these are not conversational terms and you will still be left clueless as to what people are talking about most of the time. However during a visit to Poland in autumn 2016, I began to see the funny and advantageous side of having a language barrier in a foreign country.
On the Sunday morning of a weekend in Kraków with my co-sister-in-law, we visited Wawel Cathedral. The queue was extremely long and snatches of conversation apparently suggested ticket sales were about to end for the Royal State Rooms. My sister went to inquire inside and came back grinning. In a moment of jamminess, two South American ladies with spare tickets had overheard her asking about the probability of getting tickets within the next hour and offered her their spares. One of the ladies was an architect working in Warsaw and proficiently explained in Polish the origins behind the royal tapestries and regal pieces of furniture. It’s quite rare for someone from Latin America to speak Polish, and it was refreshing that this was the language of choice over English. I would stand with little idea of what they were saying, smiling and nodding at what seemed like the right times.
The funniest point is when people suddenly start laughing. Laughter is contagious and it’s an instinct to join in…except when the laughter is about something you can’t understand, people will look at you with a puzzled expression and you’ll feel like a Ben Stiller character.
At the same time, and, rude as it may sound, having a language barrier can bring a sense of liberty. There is no obligation to pay attention and contribute, but instead the freedom to wander around in your own world.
A few days after my Kraków trip, my sister-in-law invited me along to a yoga class. It would be my first experience of yoga but with traffic congested, we were running late. I suddenly felt a slight build-up of butterflies, flashbacks to when I was a child turning up late to my first session with a swimming club not knowing anyone, or feeling self-conscious as a teenager walking into a party already in full swing. But I was older now and more used to new situations.
We entered the studio with four other participants already making shapes (so much for my plan of going to the back of the room!) and were thrown straight in to abnormal stretches. Oblivious to what was going on, I would glance around the room and attempt to mimic the poses, with my sister-in-law whispering occasional instructions. Sometimes I would close my eyes to help me maintain a pose while the instructor kept talking, only to look up and notice that everyone now had their legs over their head and so forth.
The instructor had trained in California and could speak English. She would approach me with calm whispers of “Focus on your breathing – in and out through the nose.” ‘But I might collapse!’ I thought as I attempted to stick one leg straight out behind me while putting my hands in the praying position to my chest and twisting my head up towards the ceiling.
I then found myself in what I can only describe as the ‘Giving Birth’ position. Lying on my back with my legs spread far open, the instructor slowly attempted to ease them further apart. With eyes wide like a baby rabbit staring into the open mouth of a fox, I smiled up at her pathetically, hoping she wouldn’t snap my legs off (and be too disgusted by the condition of my feet).
By the end of the class, my brain and body was destroyed. However I went again a week later and saw a definite improvement in my ability to hold some stretches. I even started recognising the Polish words the instructor was using to count and say “hold” etc.
I also had my first experience of a dog show in Poland, when my brother and his wife took their two dogs to two competitions in one weekend. Over two days, I got a glimpse into the snobby, two-faced world that is dog shows. Imagine a row of poodles, Old English Sheepdogs, and Chihuahuas on tables having their fur blow-dried, curled or straightened. Imagine big men in tracksuits blowing whistles and shouting commands at their Alsatian as it gallops recklessly around a ring with the handler hanging on for dear life. Imagine smarmy judges reducing owners to tears with their arrogant, disapproving comments about a dog’s features. Imagine owners casting you filthy looks if your dog so much as glances at theirs. (Any slight scuff of contact can stimulate verbal wars.)
I was put on dog-and-baby-holding-duty, the latter inviting some curious looks which I was relieved didn’t lead to anything more. (My brother later joked that, based on typical Polish culture, most people were probably thinking I was too old, rather than too young, to have a baby.) When holding the dogs however, people would sometimes approach wanting to stroke them, occasionally asking questions. I could only smile and nod. On the second day I noticed one of the dogs trying to smell the bag of another owner sat near us. The owner later turned and said something to me with a facial expression that I found hard to interpret. I later found out he had been complaining about the dog’s alleged salivation on his bag. Being oblivious, I wasn’t able to feel bothered by anything he said.
This is where a language barrier can be beneficial, because of the desensitisation it brings to verbal interactions that might otherwise upset you. Another example of when I’ve appreciated language ignorance for this reason comes from Porto in Portugal, where I would sometimes walk down the street and males would make what seemed like, based on their body language and facial expressions, sexual comments towards me.
There are of course disadvantages to this specific scenario of a language barrier though, in that you can’t apologise for any bad actions you’ve committed unawaringly. This dog owner probably didn’t appreciate me smiling as he grumbled about my dog…but hey, I didn’t see any saliva anywhere.
My sister-in-law’s grandma speaks very little English. We stayed at hers over the weekend we went to the dog show, and as she showed me my room, she would mutter away in Polish as if not realising the extent of just how unproficient I am at the language. I would make enthusiastic “mmm” noises and say “piękny” (pretty) whenever she pointed at something and looked at me. Then there was the time when I was holding my nephew after he’d started crying. I finally managed to soothe him with some cheerful singing (Motown genre, to be precise) and looked out into the garden as his head flopped onto my shoulder. Then I sensed a new presence in the room and heard the approaching steps of the grandma sneaking up behind. I glanced around and saw her with her arms reached out expectantly, looking at her great-grandson with calculating glee. I had no choice but to relinquish him, before looking away awkwardly when he immediately started crying again.
One evening, my brother’s neighbour invited us over for a birthday dinner. One dessert dish was roasted pumpkin with honey, and it was really tasty. While guests would talk to me in English now and then, naturally the conversation would soon revert back to Polish. Again I faced the challenge of smiling at the right time, but there was also the added challenge of refusing food offerings. Polish culture has an emphasis on hospitality – people enjoy feeding others…a lot. I felt my stomach ballooning to the point of discomfort but felt rude saying no when someone mentioned in English that they’d made the cake themselves. Even if I said no, minutes later they would only hold the plate under my nose with encouraging nods. “Pyszne,” (delicious) I would say with a thumbs up as I forced the food down my throat.
Then there came the biggest challenge: the singing of “Happy Birthday”. My solution to this seemed to be standing with my mouth half open, nodding my head from side to side in time with the tune, trying to guess when the person’s name was about to be mentioned so I could jump in and contribute at least one word.
There will always be times when not knowing the local language leads to stressful situations. But having a language barrier can also be highly entertaining and create fond memories. It also reinforces the value of patience, good manners, initiative, and observation – attributes useful in any environment, no matter what languages you speak.
Please share your hilarious language barrier stories below!