I knew absolutely no Thai when I applied for ISA’s Bangkok’s program, and communicating with a language barrier was one of my bigger concerns before I left. Two years ago, I spent a semester in Costa Rica, and even with a few years of Spanish classes under my belt, it was still a challenge to communicate with my host family at times. So I knew from experience – three months was definitely not going to be long enough to gain fluency in another language, especially one as difficult as Thai. But I went for it, bought a couple of language dictionaries, and learned as many survival phrases as I could. And, big surprise, things turned out just fine. Here’s a few things I learned from living abroad in a non-English (or Spanish) speaking country:
- Eating is an adventure
Let’s just say, menus with pictures are going to be your new best friend. You have to be flexible when it comes to food, because you might not end up with what you thought you had ordered. Actually, you may not have any idea what you’re putting in your mouth half the time. But one thing I love about Thailand is that meals are wonderfully cheap (like a dollar) and everything is delicious. So even when communication goes awry, you really can’t go wrong.
2. Creativity is crucial
When you’re studying in a non-English speaking country, you should try to learn as much of the language as you can – or at least some basic phrases to get by. But realistically, learning languages is hard, and no matter how much time you spend with your flashcards, you’re bound to find yourself without the right word sometimes. So you resort to pointing, acting things out, finding someone to help you translate, or if you planned ahead, referring to the language app on your phone.
3. Celebrate the little things
I never thought I’d get excited about something like asking where the bathroom is, but when you’re trying to learn another language, every successful interaction is worth patting yourself on the back. The longer I’ve been here, the more words I can pick out in people’s conversations, the lower I can bargain down prices at the markets, and the more options I have when ordering dinner. A new language can be overwhelming, because there is so much to learn and not enough time, but you get excited about whatever amount of progress you are able to make.
4. The signs are always great
Whether menus and signs are written in foreign characters or poorly translated English, the total confusion you experience can be pretty entertaining.
As much as the language barrier stressed me out before I came, I’ve adapted to it and it hasn’t really been that difficult. Depending on where you go, more people speak English than you would think. If they don’t, you can usually get your point across with some combination of Thai, bilingual friends (or strangers), gestures and pointing, and Google Translate. Just keep your sense of humor and be willing to put yourself out there.
Traveling has made me realize how ridiculous it is that so many Americans (myself included) are unable to communicate well in any other languages. I’ve met so many friends from other parts of the world who speak two, three or even four languages well – and I am astonished by them. While English is becoming more widely used around the world, it is so valuable to be able to adapt and communicate with people in other languages. I keep finding myself adding “get better at Spanish”and “learn French someday” to my bucket list. But for now, I try to be more globally minded in the random vocabulary I learn every day, the short exchanges I have with a taxi driver or our housekeeper. I love it when a street vendor is surprised to hear western tourists using simple Thai phrases. Americans can be better in a lot of ways, and it feels good to try to leave a more positive reputation when we can.
7. There are endless surprises
Sometimes you just won’t have a clue what’s going on. It can be frustrating at times when you can’t get your point across to someone, or when you’re the only one who doesn’t understand a word of what people around you are talking about. But people are so kind, especially in Thailand, and they are so willing to help you out. I’ve ended up in a handful of situation where I didn’t know what I was eating, what those ruins were from, if I would catch that bus in time, or what kind of Buddhist ceremony our housekeeper was taking us to. But so many of those uncertain situations turn into a great adventure, if you’re up for it.