Translating Languages While Traveling

Students from Longview High School in Texas recently contacted ALTA to ask for advice about a class project. Their project is part of an Engineering Design and Development course where the students try to fix an everyday problem. The problem they chose: “translating languages while traveling.”

Their letter included several questions, and we will be sending them answers to these; but, we thought it might be fun, and helpful to the students, to ask our readers:

What translation or language problems have you run into while traveling, and how did you solve them?

There are many common problems and common solutions, so put some thought into it and share your more interesting stories and solutions!

  • Jennifer Escalona
    Posted at 19:55h, 11 October Reply

    I found this question extremely timely because I just returned from a trip to Venezuela, and I barely speak Spanish. Luckily, I took a native speaker along as a traveling partner, but he, of course, wasn’t around all the time to act as my personal translator!

    Here were a few of my coping strategies:

    1.) Charades and Body Language — Never underestimate the power of exaggerated motions and playacting. The wilder your imagination the better. Don’t be afraid to make like a mime and you’ll get what you want. I even managed to pick on and torment my new little brother-in-law through gestures and charades alone!

    2.) Point It (book) – This book fits in your pocket yet simultaneously holds pictures of nearly everything you could want to talk about, from foods to taxis to medical supplies to well… your basic romantic situations. Snag it here:

    3.) A Spanish/English Dictionary – I found this tool the least effective because who has time to stop and look up words in mid-conversation? On the other hand, it was the only way I had to talk about abstract concepts. (Try miming “darkness.”) While a dictionary wasn’t of much practical use, it was worth hauling around nonetheless.

    I thought about buying a pocket electronic translator, but eventually decided against it. I wonder if anyone else has an opinion on electronic translators?

  • Veronique
    Posted at 10:23h, 15 October Reply

    Traveling abroad is an enriching experience. Not speaking the language of the country you are visiting can be unnerving. Stay positive and approach the situation with humor. Chances are you will interact with wonderful people who will go out of their way to help you just because you don’t speak the language. You may want to learn a few phrases such as “excuse me” to catch someone’s attention when you need help or “thank you” to express your gratitude.

    Having a map of the area at all time will be handy when asking for directions. I would also recommend having the addresses for where you are staying and the places you intend to visit written down. Remember that there are many ways to communicate. You can use gestures, signs or even point at pictures for more basic needs such as food, restrooms, lodging etc… The language barrier will make you uneasy at times but keep in mind that even people who speak the same language don%u2019t always understand each other.

    As my friend from Québec asked me once when travelling through France — Why are people responding to me in English? Because of her accent they assumed she was struggling even though French is her native language!

    Whatever you do to communicate, don’t be afraid or feel embarrassed. And yes, people will speak really loud when they try to help you, as it seems to be the natural response when someone does not understand — but that’s okay! Keep smiling and enjoy your trip!

    Posted at 10:37h, 15 October Reply

    The Survival Guide is a collection of travel survival guides to foreign languages. There are three categories of free survival guides to download, print and pocket. The different survival guides are available in Chinese, German, English, Spanish, French, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Turkish.

    Here’s a link:
    Language Survival Guides

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