Dear Savvy Traveller,
What’s the best way to really immerse yourself in the culture of a location when you don’t speak the local language?
From feelings to words, not being understood is one of our greatest universal anxieties. We’re already uncomfortable in daily conversation when those around us don’t grasp what we’re trying to express, but add to that the inability to speak the language and we’re evicted from the conversation before we even enter it. For a traveller who needs to eat, sleep and navigate unfamiliar territory, not being able to communicate can be a terrifying prospect.
What I love about your question is that you’ve bypassed this completely. You haven’t asked how to survive without language, but how to experience culture, and this is one of the great differences between tourists and travellers. A tourist needs to survive long enough to encounter top attractions, but a traveller connects with people to experience the rhythm of a place. For this, we surely need some way to communicate.
But let’s slow down and answer the part of the question you skipped—survival. It sounds like you already know this, but I want to be loud and clear for everyone who doesn’t yet: barring the most remote locations, you don’t need to speak the local language to survive, especially with today’s technology. To meet your daily needs, your phone is the only companion that needs to understand your language. Just as in your daily life, your phone can tell you where to eat abroad, how to get back to your bed and how many train stops away your next destination is.
If you’re truly concerned that you won’t be able to communicate your basic needs to locals, the one thing you should do in advance is be sure you have an international data plan for the duration of your trip, or check if buying a local SIM card is easy or possible. Staying connected will keep you in the loop with everything in your own language, and give you access to quick translations when you want to know what a sign says or how to tell the cab driver where to go. Of course, there are still magical places on this planet where mobile service doesn’t reach—and while it’s unlikely you’d be headed there if you had these basic survival concerns, I wholeheartedly encourage it, with one caveat: don’t go it alone. This is a case where an experienced guide who speaks both languages will be most helpful, and bravo to you for taking this journey. You won’t regret it.
Back to your question of cultural immersion, Jeffrey. Fortunately, words are hardly the only way to communicate, and culture inherently bypasses the need for them. Of course, writing and speech are components of culture, but the rest of this wide realm exists to convey the same meaning without words. You don’t need to understand lyrics to feel the emotion of music. You can feel political struggle and religious awe through the visual mediums of art and dance. And you surely don’t need to speak to smell the aromas and taste the flavours of local cuisine. (Don’t they tell us not to talk with our mouths full anyway?) When it comes time to interact with culture and the people behind it, body language and facial expressions can express so much more than words. With rare exception, the ideas conveyed with these methods are universal and there is no end to the emotions, needs and gratitude you can express with your mouth closed.
It’s always great to learn as much as you can about what you’re experiencing and asking questions is the easiest way to get the facts, but the beauty of culture is that it’s more about how the facts have been experienced by a people than it is about the facts themselves. For this, you don’t need to have a conversation in the moment. If you do want to know the facts and stories behind the culture, read up on the area before you go. A brief but solid historical, political and religious understanding will colour the cultural experiences to be had (even Wikipedia will suffice for this). Or you can wait until you’re home again to research the meanings and stories behind your new experiences and develop a deeper appreciation of them. Before, during or after, there’s no wrong time to learn more about your travels through the verbal or written word; the important thing to remember is that it certainly doesn’t have to be while you’re there.
In fact, we’re often better off not talking much while we’re travelling after all. Hopefully, we’re out there to experience new ways of life and to learn who we are in the world, and that may best be achieved by following the advice of C. S. Lewis, who answered your question in 1955: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.”