This series is a series of firsthand anecdotes from a seasoned solo traveler who has traveled to 50 countries over the past decade. Priyanka Juneja is also completing her MBA and Masters in International Studies from Wharton and is the founder of @hera.travel, a platform to empower women to travel fearlessly.
If only I had nickel as often as I got lost on a trip. Scratch that, I’d love a dollar a time. I might as well make it worth it. As someone who loves planning, you’d think this happens less often, but it’s difficult to prepare for each and every scenario. For example, when I first went to Buenos Aires, a friend and I took Uber around town and assumed we could find WiFi again so we could call someone and get back to our Airbnb. That was clearly the wrong assumption. After a wonderful afternoon downtown, it was time to head home so we grabbed a few drinks from a place that proudly had a sign that said WiFi. Fortunately the WiFi wasn’t working and we were in the middle of an area we didn’t know at all and which was getting dark. We didn’t feel comfortable taking a taxi after dark so we quickly ran out of options. Normally this would panic me a little, but since I speak Spanish I was able to speak to locals and found out that we could take the subway back to our side of town. Phew, crisis averted.
I feel more comfortable in Latin America. Here’s why:
When I was younger my school had a language requirement. Most children never took that seriously, but when I decided to study Spanish, I fell in love with the language. I spent hours a week adding new words to my vocabulary, studying the subtle nuances of grammar, and getting excited whenever I was able to speak sentence to paragraph. I made a minor in college and studied abroad in Seville, Spain. (If you haven’t been you have to go – trust me!)
Visiting a place where you don’t know the language can be just as fun. Knowing that I can get around and communicate makes me feel safer when I travel.
For me, learning Spanish was so much more than just learning a new language. It taught me a newfound appreciation for another culture and ignited my wanderlust. After Spain, I really wanted to explore Latin America. The region intrigued me in ways that I didn’t know existed, and my bucket list expanded endlessly.
The ability to speak Spanish comfortably has been a major factor in my being in eight Latin American countries since then and eager to discover more. Visiting a place where you don’t know the language can be just as fun. Knowing that I can get around and communicate makes me feel safer when I travel.
Language is an important link for safety when traveling
A good understanding of the language is not only important for your personal safety when traveling, but also for health and food safety. If you run into an emergency situation, knowing how to navigate it is important, especially if you are traveling alone. I’m not saying that you have to be fluent in all kinds of languages to be able to travel (even if that would be incredibly impressive), but it is worth researching key terms in a language. Even if you don’t remember them and have them written out instead. Chances are you’ll never need them, but just knowing you have them can make you feel more comfortable.
If you have the time, you can even do a little immersion before your trip. Check out Rosetta Stone’s plan as soon as you book your trip. This feature gives you a curated 6 week, 30 minute / daily plan based on your skills and motivation. As you do this, see if there is a restaurant from this country in your city and practice the basics as you try the food. The possibilities are really endless and it will make you all the more excited about your trip.
What can be done about language barriers?
Different languages are a nice part of traveling. Just like enjoying new spices in local cuisine, painting the brushstrokes of a talented artist or strolling through the colorful streets. They are definitely an integral part of the local culture and one that you don’t want to miss out on.
Even so, language barriers can be difficult and a little discouraging to travel. The mission behind Hera is to help women travel safer. As part of this, we curate per-target security guides that contain helpful key terms. For example, in Buenos Aires you can find Spanish translations of sentences like “Can you help me, please? I am lost” (¿Me ayudas, por favor? Estoy perdida) and “Is this place safe?” (¿Este lugar es seguro?) (Is this place safe?) ”
Pro Traveler Corner
This section provides tips on overcoming language barriers.
- Learn a few key words before you go
Rosetta Stone has a phrasebook for the most popular languages. Use it to familiarize yourself with key phrases, but don’t stop there.
- Embrace body language
Language barriers can be frustrating, but it won’t help anyone if you speak incredibly quickly and keep saying the same thing over and over. Get creative. Speak slowly, use non-verbal cues, draw something out, try a different diction, etc.
- Have a voice app that works offline
Accept that you do not always have service and plan for it. Rosetta Stone allows you to download certain content (to save more space for photos).
- Translate emergency medical information
If you have a health problem or dietary restriction, have the specific problem written out in language before you travel so all you can do is show people the map. I’m a vegetarian and I had a card that said this when I went to South Korea – and that was a lifesaver