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Overcoming Language Barriers Abroad

Weight Weight, Don’t Tell Me…

“Good to see you, Beth. You’ve gained weight!” These were the words of greeting from my tour guide, Tshering, in Bhutan, whom I hadn’t seen in four months. The two pounds I had gained since my last visit was likely due to the previous three weeks of buffets while I was touring through Vietnam and Cambodia. Too much tofu and watermelon juice will do that to you, I suppose.

I graciously explained to Tshering that it was considered impolite to mention weight gain to most western women. He just chuckled, apparently not understanding the implication of saying this to someone not as thick-skinned as I.

Though my weight generally does not fluctuate greatly, this wasn’t the first time that a gain or loss in poundage had been so openly discussed. I had spent two months in Saigon teaching English in the 90’s. During that time I had become close friends with Kim who ran a small café. Her parents and siblings treated me like family. Upon returning after two years, the Kim and her parents were quite concerned at my weight loss. They had not realized I had gained several pounds from visiting their café daily and that I had merely readjusted to my “normal” weight when I returned to the U.S. They immediately began feeding me copious amounts of food. Delicious, of course, but I never gained back what I had put on during that first trip.

While in Saigon for those two months, I taught English to adult students preparing to emigrate to the U.S. These men and women regularly referred to me as a tall fat tree trunk. I tried to explain to them that I was actually considered short and skinny in the U.S. but that’s a difficult thing to make clear to a 4’10” eighty-pounder. As a result, the nickname stuck.

Despite these minor digs, I never took them personally. I knew that friends and students were speaking the plain truth as they saw it and there was no harm meant. Their etiquette and privacy rules were different than mine — after all, they were used to living with 10 people in one small home, so everything was pretty much an open book.

English Faux Pas

I know some people who don’t travel because, in their words, “I don’t speak the language.” This has always puzzled me because surely they don’t think I speak the language of all the countries I’ve visited.

But even when sharing the same language, faux pas’ can occur. Most of us have committed some gaff with the locals or with travelers from other parts of the world. Whether you’re an American talking about the money in your "fanny pack" or a Brit talking about the need for a “fag” (please don’t make me explain either of those!), language blunders are more common than one might think.

When I lived in Sydney for six months, I was often asked, “How ya goin’?” I would promptly answer with something like, “Oh, I took the train here today.” It took me a long time to realize that the question meant, “How are you doing?” I can only imagine how puzzling my response must have been to those poor Aussies.

Sometimes the language barrier might be so thick or our shared words so lacking that one must rely on body language to decipher nuanced responses. In this case, things can also get jumbled. My students in Vietnam often read more into my facial expressions than what was actually going on. A pensive thought might be taken too seriously or a full stomach mistaken for an illness. “Ms. Beth, you are homesick today, you look very sad.” “Ms. Beth, you must be very lonely today.” “You’re sick? You’re not eating everything on your plate!”

I probably took more offense at the misdiagnoses of a weak stomach or homesickness than of the observations of my weight gains or losses because I felt that I was often being misread.

Overcoming the Language Fear Factor

But these are examples of Friendly Fire. What happens when you enter a perceived danger zone? We may be getting ourselves all worked up over nothing.

While it’s a common belief that Parisians will not give an American the time of day unless she can speak impeccable French, this was not my experience in the city (nor in most places in France). This antagonism may have been true many years ago but no longer seems to be the case. Perhaps the explosion of social media and the internet has leveled the playing field or perhaps the country’s reliance on tourism has forced an increase in the tolerance level of the French. Regardless of the reason, you’ll likely find this increase in tolerance to be true around the world.

It’s comforting to know that even the most experienced travelers may harbor some fear when dealing with a foreign language. Some travelers are likely either afraid to make a mistake (and risk looking foolish), while others may be afraid that they will become confused (and risk looking foolish) because they don’t understand the language, whether it’s written or spoken. Either way, this fear could keep all but the boldest of travelers hiding out in their hotel room or at the hostel where chances are high that they’ll be able to speak with other travelers in their native tongue.

But, you do have to meet the locals half way — you’re visiting their country, remember? Get over your fears and know that we all have some level of reluctance to put ourselves out there when in a foreign place and out of our "comfort zone." Don’t wait for perfection in your pronunciation or you’ll never go anywhere. Instead, test out phrases with your seatmate on the plane or train; listen to language audio programs prior to your travels; and then know you won’t get it exactly right anyway. The locals will not laugh at you for trying, though if you are open to it, they may laugh with you!

Finally, test your skills and take public transportation to the largest market in the largest city at your destination. Navigate the stalls of local produce, crafts, clothes, and food. It can be intimidating but, personally, I wouldn’t deny myself the opportunity to sink fully into the cacophony.

What’s the worse that can happen? You might get rescued by a swarm of students who want to practice their English. You can then take the time to explain to them the nuances of English and the etiquette of not noticing a woman’s weight.
Related Topics
Language Learning
Women Travel

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