Overcoming Language Barriers

One of the most beneficial cultural experiences in my life has been the ability to travel for work across the globe. Military, combat and contracting have all given me the ability to immerse myself into numerous different locations on multiple continents. The largest hurdles that I have faced has been with language barriers. In any number of action movies, the hero navigates throughout Europe and coupled with their vast language and tactical skills, has the ability to mold into the environment while being able to easily communicate in foreign languages and have the skills to use the local dialects in order to blend in without sounding like an American. This can explain the need for many different passports all with aliases that fit in wherever he travels. As for me, I can order food, hail taxis, and maybe ask for directions but my dependency on the English language beams with every attempt. For anyone who travels frequently, having the language skills of where you are traveling can provide an avenue for success in communication with the locals and possibly even provide some cover if you find yourself in harm’s way. I can honestly say, that for the most part, people are good-natured and will help you if you can effectively communicate with them.
There are just a few options you have when planning a trip to a location where your inability to communicate with the indigenous population can hinder your movements.
Language Immersion
Many of our brothers and sisters in specialized military operations are afforded the opportunity to study language skills abroad. Learning in a classroom or with some sort of self-taught programs are adequate, dependent on the study skills and determination of the individual. If your career demands it, determination comes so much easier than for the rest of us who may just resort to hiring an interpreter or “wing it” as I have done over the years. I will be the first to admit that my attempts to learn another language have fallen short when an interpreter costs about ten bucks an hour. Relying on someone else to relay my message is so much easier than learning it in the indigenous tongue, especially in locations that have very primitive cultures whose linguistics are not the world-wide norm of English, French, and Spanish. There are over 1500 to 2000 language dialects spoken in Africa alone, a smartphone language app just isn’t capable. Not to mention, many primitive dialects do not have words for the modern world. The solution may be much more simple than you would think.
“Pointee Talky” Cards
While serving in Iraq, I was given a small, fold-out pamphlet that looked like a section of the funny papers, with various cartoon pictures of just about any situation you could encounter. Medical emergencies, vehicle, and aircraft identification, and even pictures of many different combat scenarios, all printed on the front and back of a folding document that can easily be put in your back pocket. I dug through an old footlocker and dusted these things off, after almost forgetting I had them. After some internet research, I found that there is actually a company that makes these things for not only soldiers but also for civilian use when traveling. This was one of those moments when I realized I had something locked away that I could have used when contracting and working with folks that may not have spoken the most common languages shared by colonists early in world history. For the villages that I had worked in that only spoke in a tongue involving babel and clicks that sounded more like an animal in distress than a language, a “pointee talky” would have made my communication so very much easier. An internet search of “pointee talky” will lead you to where you can get these things in many different configurations for virtually anywhere you go, and more importantly, can give you the tools to show your needs to someone just by pointing to a picture rather than butchering your attempt at verbal communication. Keep in mind that cultural norms can just as important as verbal communication. In one country I worked, it took almost a year before I learned that pointing at someone, or anything in general, was considered a major insult. Even pointing at the cards with my index finger would have been considered insulting, so I would have had to use my thumb or pinky finger to point at a picture on the cards.
For the vast amounts of travel, westerners perform, learning a new language for vacation or work just isn’t practical or even remotely doable in that it takes years to become a fluent speaker in a foreign language, even more so for a primitive one. We must use the tools at hand and find a method to convey needs in a pinch without insulting or demoralizing an indigenous foreigner. Remember that the within the first few seconds of your interaction with someone worlds away from yours, one small mistake can be the difference in a successful friendship to be, or to wake tied up in the trunk of a car.