Cultural immersion is an important part of being a traveller but it can be challenging to navigate, especially with language barriers! Luckily, there are a few ways to make it easier to communicate and help you connect with people along the way.
If anything can be called an illuminating experience, exploring exotic cultures through travels to foreign countries is certainly it. Meeting new people, seeing new cultures, tasting new food… there’s no end to the kinds of out-of-the-ordinary experiences you can have when discovering a new corner of the globe. Southeast Asia is the perfect place to do it, too — with so many unique and distinct ethnic cultures and the sheer amount of tradition and color the region boasts, new experiences are part of what puts Indochina and its neighboring countries consistently at the top of travelers’ bucket lists.
But for those that wouldn’t necessarily count themselves as seasoned world travelers, the prospect of communicating with locals without being able to utter so much as a sentence in the native language can be daunting at best. Part of experiencing a culture is interacting with the people, but that’s harder than it sounds in a place like Southeast Asia, which is home to hundreds of languages. Thankfully, exploring a country with a tour guide who calls the country home is certainly the best way to break the language divide. But even alongside a tour guide, getting up-close and personal with locals means braving that language barrier and letting some other things do the talking.
These are some of the tips that our local tour guides give our travelers when they’re in rural and urban areas alike. With these tricks, getting a more in-depth cultural experience is just a few interactions away.
Pay Attention to Body Language
Did you know that body language accounts for around 90% of our communication? It’s incredible how little vocabulary actually matters when communicating with people around the world, and although body language itself can vary quite a bit between cultures and countries, there are a few elements to non-verbal communication that are truly global. In Southeast Asia, there are plenty of ways that body language is different.
The classic hand gesture most of us use to beckon someone can be considered rude in Thailand and Vietnam, for example. But for the standard ways we show trust, respect and attention, these things are almost universal. Smiles, hellos and simple nods can go a long way when interacting with a local, and while things like touching and eye contact might vary a bit, it’s pretty easy to get a handle on what’s appropriate and what’s not by simply watching what others around you do. In Vietnam, for example, a sincere sign of respect (especially for elders) is handing items to others with two hands, and not just one. Paying close attention to what others around you do in social situations — and then adopting those traits — can make it much easier to break down barriers and gain trust from otherwise shy locals. And even if you make a few mistakes, the locals will surely be happy you tried!
Carry a Notebook
In an age when nearly all of our lives are on our smart phones, the concept of a pen and paper is sometimes a little foreign to even older generations. In Southeast Asia, though, the constant travel and steep roaming fees will probably have you without internet connection — and consequently, Google search — for most of your travels. So, asking for noodles and not rice won’t be as easy as searching for an image or using a translate feature. Instead, you’ll need to try out your inner-Picasso and sketch it out instead.
Thankfully, there are some helpful symbols that are fairly universal. The symbols we often see in airports, for example, are readily understood and used throughout the world, including most of Southeast Asia. Studying up on these symbols before your trip abroad can save you the confusion of trying to sketch a toilet when it would have been easier to simply draw two stick figures in boxes. One clever company called Kwikpoint makes it even easier and takes the drawing out of the equation entirely, with helpful illustrated booklets that a traveler can easily point to rather than draw. These booklets have some of those symbols that are readily understood around the world, and since they’re created with clarity in mind, you can avoid showcasing your less-than-stellar drawing skills.
Learn to Say and Listen
Many head out to Southeast Asia with a phrasebook in hand and a few basic phrases in their arsenal, usually revolving around things like restrooms, food and directions. It turns out, though, that no matter how closely you think you’ve gotten to the correct pronunciation, plenty of locals in Southeast Asian countries are not used to hearing their language spoken in strong accents, and simply cannot understand even passable accents.
In Southeast Asia, sometimes the best phrases to learn are not actually vocabulary, but how to ask what something is. Simply perfecting how to ask “how do you say this” or “what is this called” is the best way to learn bits of the language while you’re traveling, since you can hear the local pronunciation right from a local. This also opens up an open line of communication that can make for some truly memorable experiences, since you’re partnering with a local to learn more about their culture straight from them.
Carry Multi-Language Maps
Much of Southeast Asia has not only a foreign spoken language, but also a foreign written language as well. This small difference can make for a huge difference in comfort level when exploring, since languages written the alphabet we are familiar with usually follow similar letter pronunciations. But in countries like Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, the written language is entirely different, which can make things as simple as trying to find a restaurant or pharmacy a new challenge.
One of the biggest challenges in overcoming a foreign written language is when navigating, since many maps that are given to tourists are written with a standard alphabet that English speakers can read. So while we might be able to pronounce the road names, we aren’t able to match them with signs on the road. Keep an eye on the map you’re taking with you, which should have both languages written together so that you can both read them and match them with what you’re seeing.
Travel With a Local Guide
Even so, exploring a region like Southeast Asia is sometimes at its best with a local tour guide, since they not only understand the language, but the customs as well. Tour guides can help to bridge the gap between you and the local community, educate you on how to best interact with the locals in a respectful and friendly way, and guide you in getting the most out of your experience in a foreign culture. Plus, tour guides can provide you the comfortable fall back you need when you aren’t looking to struggle against the language barrier, but can certainly help you with some phrases in their local language to try out as well.
All in all, tour guides are the best link to a local culture, since they are a cultural barometer that no guidebook or language dictionary could never be. It’s certainly one of our favorite ways we help our guests get a truly authentic and life-changing experience in Southeast Asia, while being comfortable enough to get a sense of what the region is truly about. After all, our customers consistently give us the best feedback about not just the destinations they visit, but the tour guides that took them there!
Want to practice your tips to conquer language barriers? Chat with one of our tour guides on your next journey through Southeast Asia.