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Four Tips for Navigating Travel in a Foreign Language

I was standing in a station in Tokyo at the tail end of rush hour, a pink ticket in my right hand and a blue ticket in my left hand, panic rising in my chest. My friends had crossed the ticket barrier already, I had been trailing behind, and they were suddenly out of view. The barrier was making an angry sound, and I was getting in the way of the stream of rushed commuters.

Take a deep breath. Take a step back. Think.

I found a station employee and through a mix of limited Japanese and improvised hand gestures, managed to communicate that my ticket had stopped working. He took both the tickets from my hands and stared at them for a minute. I said the name of the station I was trying to get to, and his eyes lit up. He lead me to a ticket machine on the other side of the hallway. This was the machine for JR tickets. The machine I had used was for a different train that did not serve the station I was trying to get to. He helped me get the correct ticket, and showed me how to refund the tickets I had accidentally purchased.

I laughed, relieved, thanked him profusely, and rushed off to find my friends on the platform.

One of the options offered by Chronos is a travel itinerary to a destination relevant to your family’s history. Often times when you travel to explore your heritage you end up outside of your home country, perhaps to a nation where you can neither read nor speak the language.

One of the most important things any traveller should prepare for is how they are going to communicate when they are in a foreign country. The right preparation can help you feel more at home, and more connected to, your ancestor's heritage. You don’t have to be fluent to navigate travel in a foreign language, but you should take some steps to prepare yourself before you go.

Learn How to Read and Count

Many languages use the English (or Latin) alphabet, which is beneficial to travelers who use the same letters in their own native language. However, traveling outside of one’s comfort zone, such as to a country with a wildly different writing system, is a rewarding experience. When you choose to do so, one of the most useful skills you can learn is how to read the local alphabet.

Even if you are unable to comprehend the language, knowing what a sign in a train station or on a streetcorner says can be vital. If you know you need to get to Shibuya Station, it’s useful to know that it’s written as しぶや in Japanese hiragana when you’re staring at a station map that doesn’t have a single word in your native tongue.

There are excellent resources online for learning various alphabets. Though it is not always a feasible feat for every language in the world, it is still a worthwhile trip-prep task for many travel destinations.

In addition to the alphabet, it is useful to know how to count in a foreign language. You will need to say how many members in your party at restaurants, know how much to pay at the cash register, or relay how many nights you are staying in your hotel or hostel. If you can learn to count to ten (or twenty, for the ambitious) comfortably, you will find many situations easier to navigate.

Learn What to Say

It is both friendly and respectful to be able to greet locals in the native language of whatever country you are in. Learning how to say hello, good morning, good evening, please, thank you, excuse me, and all manners of polite phrases will show those you interact with that you are respectful of their society and that you are a conscientious tourist.

In addition to greetings, knowing when to shake hands, or bow, or whether you should make or avoid eye contact is another important topic to research before you travel. You may stick out like a sore thumb as a foreigner in certain places, but showing respect for local customs communicates that you are making an effort to understand and fit into the society.

Another important communication tool some may wish to use is a small card with a pre-translated phrase. If you have dietary restrictions, allergies, or other necessary special requests you should (professionally) translate a phrase ahead of time to print on a card that you can hand to servers or others who may need to make accommodations for you. A vegetarian may need to specify what they consider to be meat, for example, in certain cultures that might not consider seafood products to be meat. Those with severe allergies may need to ask if cooking tools can be cleaned before preparing their meal. A person with a medical condition may need to relay pertinent information quickly if they are in need of medical assistance. In these situations, relying on the pieces of the language you have picked up during your preparation may not be sufficient in breaking through the language barrier.

The last communication tip I would strongly recommend is to learn the phrase, “Do you speak English?” (or whatever language you are most comfortable speaking). When all else fails, sometimes you may need to seek out someone who speaks your own native tongue.

Come With a Toolkit

Unless you are an unusually dedicated traveller, you likely won’t come anywhere close to fluent in a language as you prepare for your trip. Nor should you! There are plentiful tools nowadays to help bridge the language gap, and every traveller should feel confident to travel regardless of language barriers. I’m a big fan of translation apps (especially those that can be used offline!); my go-to in Japan was Google Translate. It is not a perfect piece of software by any means, but it was serviceable when I needed to know the ingredients in a meal, or to translate text on a museum pamphlet.

If you’re not a fan of new-fangled technology, then look into the most useful pocket dictionary for your purposes. Are you travelling for business or pleasure? Are you going to be seeing all the modern attractions, or looking at more historical locations? There are dictionaries out there flavored for every traveler's tastes, and they provide more accurate translations than online services offer.

Go with the flow

You’ve put yourself in a new, and slightly uncomfortable situation. You should be proud! If you find yourself stuck, running behind, lost, or going off-schedule, it can be easy to become frustrated, especially when communication is difficult. But if you go into it with a sense of humility and humor, you will find that those unforeseen hiccups are nothing to stress about. Take a breath, step back, and think. You’ll find you can work your way out of any situation with the right frame of mind!

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