Thursday, January 15, 2015

Travel Tips: How to deal with the language barrier when you travel

I have wanted to post something on over-coming language barriers when you travel for a long time.

Obviously, if you speak English and stick to the 'touristy' area of travel.. it is rare that nobody could understand you at all.. also if you have WIFI and a decent programme for translation.. it may not be perfect but it will get you going... but if you are off the beaten path.. this gets tricky.. but not impossible and most of all- NEVER LET IT STOP YOU!!

1. Sticking to the tourist areas

Japan... did I tell you I love Japan? I am consistently feeding myself with a staple of anime and manga (don't judge, a creative adult is a child who survived!) and knew this was a place I wanted to visit. My first trip was in 2005 then 2012, 2013, 2014 - yes, it is that good. During my first trip, I did everything a tourist would do.. I visited Tokyo and Kyoto and took a tour to Mt Fuji and Hakone (all in English of course), we ask for where to eat at the hotels and rest of the time pointed at menus with pictures.. or those realistic food display on the window... uurrgghh I can't find a picture.. but it is a window display of the menu and price and you can't go wrong (unless if you want to know if it is beef or pork... or.?)... Train stops had both Japanese and English signs and the tourist map was clear enough for first-timers to find their way...

Hotel staff are especially 'useful'/helpful, they would speak English and would more likely recommend you a place that speaks English and can help guide you on the public transportations system.. I didn't particularly feel that language was a barrier... save for the time I couldn't find the flush button on one of those fancy Japanese toilets (it was concealed on the wall ಠ_ರೃ).

There is always a way to get around... if you like to be adventurous but not too adventurous, just stick to the main tourist areas.. and they are the main tourist area for a reason - it would be still 'exotic' enough until you are ready for more...

somehow.. my friend and I managed to book a day trip with
Japanese Rail to Atami, a hot spring village which included
access to the hot spring and a delicious lunch... (May 2005)

What has difficult is to buy a 'charm' from the temples
though.. many had no clear sign what they are for..
I also found out that for some odd reason the charm
for easy child birth is much more expensive
than the rest.. (May 2005)

2. Prepare yourself.. do your homework..

In my later trips,  I grew older and bolder.. Fred and I started venturing to areas with much less international tourist.. and things started to in a sense harder... but at the same time.. it gives fun and excitement to the trip.

We both eat just about everything save for insects and protected animals- so it is not difficult when it comes to food. Usually we do some research on regional speciality and check for famous place to eat it and usually cross check it with the hotels... sometimes you can get let down foreign guidebooks/review sites doing a review of another foreign cuisine.. sometimes it is just hype aimed at the tourist. When you have things in mind, print out the dish or the name of the restaurant or both.. just show it to reception and ask them to mark it on the map or you or even help you make a reservation.. or ask if they know a even better place to go, no harm in asking!

Same thing goes for places you want to visit, print them out or save them on your phone/tablet (to be more environmentally friendly) and ask the people you are staying with.

3. So you are fussy...

More and more people have allergies or due to other dietary reasons avoid some type of food. I always advise my friends to print out a list or a small flash card that list the most basic food type and useful phrases in the local languages. With the internet, this is incredibly easy. Avoid the pleasantries (you will pick them up as you go along) and you don't want to start compiling a dictionary.. just really  basic words you will need:

Yes, No

Chicken, Beef, Lamb, Fish, Prawns 
Nuts, Seafoo, Allergy
Hospital, Toilet 

Taxi, Train

Name and address of hotel

Everything in the local language and your language that applies to you - you might have a good memory but poor pronunciation... so unless you can say them correctly.. have them in writting. When in doubt, just point.

Or just get international roaming/WIFI or an app that works offline... we are usually too cheap to do it.. so we continue with our silly adventures.. 

Here is a funny story, Jayce and I were invited by some fancy friends to attend some horse auction and race in Australia in 2011.We took days off and booked our flight into Brisbane.. only just a couple of days before the flood shut off the roads out of the airport..  there wasn't much sense to go to stay at the airport... so we ended up having the money for the air tickets back but it goes into a fund which allow us to use the money to buy another ticket with the same airline (of course).. as Jayce had already taken her days off, she has adamant that we go somewhere.. with little time to plan, we needed somewhere relative close and with no visa required, she choose KOREA.. (eh?) I was working in Germany at that time and came back with only summer little summer dresses to frolic around Queensland and was looking to escape the cold.. but we went anyways and it was an adventure... nothing was planned saved for the first night of hotel.. we knew nothing outside of her knowledge of Korean gained from Korean dramas.. It was a fun but funny trip.

We visited Seoul and Gyeongju. The average guy on the street can't speak English in Korean- and we spoke 2 words of Korean so hilarity ensues. Just to randomly tell a (there are more) story of how we survive a the language barrier by chance..

We ate in a couple of touristy places in Seoul and they had English menus or menu with pictures, so we wanted an authentic experience of having Japanese BBQ on charcoal.. not a fancy place but a wholesome local hangout... so we asked the guy at the hotel and explicitly said this. He gave us 2 addresses close by in case one way close and it was both in the back alleys of some street... We went into one and everything looks great.. locals on the floor.. charcoal grill.. wonderful.. then we tried to order... the staff spoke no word of English!! None.. Jayce doesn't really like beef and lamb but will usually humour me but we will get a pork or chicken dish too so she doesn't starve...

As the menu was all in Korean, we resorted to sign language.. hands on the head like horns and went 'moo'... Beef? Moo.. we could then understood a nod or a shake to say no.. as we were continuing our stand-up comic, Jayce and I were discussing that maybe we just randomly point at something and just take it.. then a helpful staff that heard us speak in Mandarin walked to us and started speaking to us in Mandarin!! We were saved.. everything else went really after that and we got by with with Mandarin.. So here is what we had (part of it):

delicious Korean charcoal grill.. yum (Jan 2011)
And with our point and wait to find out strategy- just point to the most expensive (but still reasonably priced) item on the menu.. we got this at Gyeongju :

Namsan was worth the climb
(Jan 2011)
Just to end Korea with another funny story, Jayce read that Namsan is a must see spot..'you have not seen Gyeongju if you have not seen Namsan' she said the brochure (only in Korean or Chinese) wrote. The park ranger was a friendly old guy who spoke very little but some English.. we want to know how long the trek will take to see if we could make it... I think he said something like an hour (we think) but at the end it took us 3 hours (up only).. with many pit stops to take pictures and really slippery slops because of the snow... to go up and a bit faster to descend... we ended up spending the day at Namsan.. We are still not sure if we understood him wrongly or we were just really slow.. but plenty of senior citizens were trekking and floating by us.. so, we may not be the fittest one around and most people can make it up in 1 hour.

Would some translation be helpful for us at any of these points.. of course! Less traumatic.. but perhaps less memorable? Good news is though.. recent friends who went to Korea said that information in English is much more readily available now.

I couldn't find my pictures for Korea so I pinched all these
from Jayce's facebook (Jan 2011)
and now for some helpful tips...


Some of the best food I have eaten was when I didn't know what I was eating.. not just what I was ordering.. I couldn't make out what it was even after eating it...


Generally we tend to order what we know, once out of our comfort zone we tend to sometimes discover amazing surprises.

I have a strategy for ordering from a menu that you can't understand. Generally food places are either selling very limited range of products (like a pizza place) or a 'complete course' type of restaurant (starters, main, desserts)..

The one kind of food restaurant will have menu that will have similar prices.. small differences mostly to denote different styles or topping or ingredients.. you catch the drift.. for example:

Item A   $ 5.50
Item B   $ 5.80
Item Z   $5.40

For a full course meal type if place, most places logically categories their menu. It usually starts with starters, mains, desserts and beverages. You can also tell by the pricing... Usually the starter group is cheapest, with the most expensive smack in the middle (usually the main) and it get cheaper again when you reach the dessert.  Now you just need to need to play eeny, meeny, miny, moe and choose something.

extra TIP: When you need to make a guess work on what to order (and provided you have no allergies/food to avoid) take the first one! This is usually the house special or the most popular item. Or something with a thumbs up or star by the side (any special marking)... usually that's also what's being recommended.

Try this out even with menus that you can read.. at a new restaurant perhaps and you don't know what to order.. try the first one.. and see how that work out.

A local place with nothing in English.. a lady helped us
translate a bit with basic English and her phone's translator
and we basically said.. just served us something until
we say stop!! (Jan 2012)

We ate so much inexpensive good food
but have no idea what 30% of the things were..
haha.. it think the people were surprised at
how much we could eat! (Jan 2012)

Trouble in paradise

One of my pet peeves is not bad translation but rather 'unhelpful' translation. Many restaurant does this. It assumes that the diner already know the name of the food... you get this often for example:

1. ****** unknown characters*****
-Tempura of prawns with assorted vegetables

Yes.. if you know what is tempura in the first place great.. but if you don't... well at least you know you are eating prawns and vegetable...

Here is a helpful menu while the dishes have names it clearly explains what they are. Halver Hahn is literally half a chicken in German.. but it is actually cheese with bread.. I was once with a friend who wanted to order this at a pub thinking that it is so cheap for half a chicken but when I told him it was cheese with bread, he checked with the waitress because he couldn't believe me..

So this menu does a good job at explaining what a Kruestchen is or what a Reibekuchen is.. instead of just using the local name for it.

But in any case if you have done your home work and am sure what you want to have at every particular restaurants.. just go ahead and show them the print out of what you want to avoid all this hassle.

When you really need good translation...

As I am easy going with food, menu or no menu, it is just an adventure for I don't mind it that much, but when it comes to instructions.. no translation or bad translation can create some embarrassing faux pas. For example, it is strictly NO SHOES when you enter into a room with tatami flooring. Or the correct way to enter/use a Japanese hotspring (Onsen).

One experience for example is last year when we went to Kirishima and stayed at an inn offering volcanic mud bath - it is supposed to be really good for your skin... I must say your skin is pretty velvety after the bath (。♥‿♥。) hehehe.. anyways.. Kyushu as a region let alone Kirishima does not have many international tourist.. it catered to mostly local tourist and foreigner living in Japan.. we got by pretty OK with the food and being an agricultural area.. food was fresh, delicious and cheap.. Oh my god... such a nice place for food... but going back to the bath...

There was instructions in Japanese then English (didn't take any pictures) on how to use the bath, the English translation was really bad. Made worse was the confusing pictures.. you see people in mud in the tub - like the whole body is covered in mud.. but it also said something like wash off the mud before going into the water as not to dirty it... Oh no!!! 

So while looking at how orders did it, I kinna did the whole body thingee and waited it to dry a bit then rinse it off.. I kept what is on my face with my body cleaned in the tub.. not really sure what's right or wrong even today.. In cases like these I just don't want to be the crude tourist that is disrespectful - sometimes because of the lack of knowledge (on the my end), although usually I must say the lack of knowledge comes from my lack of preparation... sigh.. but I do think that important (things that if done 'wrongly' can be considered offensive) should really be translated well. Personally I think the most important about being a tourist/guest is being respectful to the norms of the host but sometimes we need a bit of HELP!!

Even if you are a monkey.. it is important to be a
respectful monkey.. (Jan 2013)

Happy travelling and stay fearless! (´ε` )♡

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