How to Get By When You Can’t Speak the Language
I’ve always sucked at foreign languages. Don’t believe me? I grew up with two Korean parents (yes, from Korea) and somehow I managed to NOT learn Korean. In middle school, Pig Latin and Gibberish (and the girls who spoke them) constantly eluded me. In high school, I took 3 years of Spanish and all I got from it was “Donde esta la biblioteca?”
In spite of all this, I somehow thought my Spanish would be up to snuff for my latest trip: living for 5 weeks in Medellin, Colombia. Um, no. This is gonna sound stupid, but when I landed I was actually surprised by how difficult it was to communicate. I guess in my previous travels, I was either surrounded by a ton of other English-speaking travelers (Thailand) or lived in a city where English was a common second-language (Berlin, Germany). Not this time.
Colombia was full on Spanish, all the time. And wow, it was such a different experience trying to live in a country where you can barely speak the language. It was challenging, exciting, frustrating, rewarding, and most definitely a time I’ll never forget. Here are a few things I learned from my experience:
Everything becomes an adventure. Getting groceries. Figuring out the metro. Asking your landlady for toilet paper. When you don’t speak the language, the most mundane things can become epic, monumental tasks.
People will think you’re retarded. I wish I could say it’s all fun, but it can be hard at times too. Some people will literally treat you as if you’re retarded. They’ll get annoyed that you can’t get your point across and will think you’re dumb because of it. Brush ‘em off – for every one of them, there’s 99 other friendly people who will want to genuinely help you and get to know you, regardless of your language barriers.
Other times, you’ll be frustrated with yourself. It can really suck to not be able to communicate your thoughts and feelings. At times it’ll feel like you can’t fully express your real personality – that people aren’t getting to see the witty, philosophical, or genuine sides of you. That’s normal, everyone who’s lived in a foreign country has dealt with this at some point. But at other times…
You’ll be amazed at how much you can communicate with so little. I’ve had some amazing hangouts where I literally told 10 minute stories with the most basic words, finger pointing, and exaggerated facial expressions. You’ll find that you can still express your personality, but you have to be more creative about it.
Find another way to express an idea using the basic words you know. Use hand motions. Be more expressive with your face. So what if your conversation looks like a game of charades? If they can understand you, that’s all that matters.
Language learning finally makes sense. I hated learning Spanish in my high school class. We spent hours and hours memorizing vocab words and learning conjugation rules, but at the end of the day, I still couldn’t hold an actual conversation with someone. And even if I could, how often did I actually need to use Spanish in my daily life? Never.
But learning Spanish while in a Spanish speaking country? It’s a night and day difference. You’re not learning the language just cause it’s a hobby. You actually NEED to learn it (especially if you’re dating a jealous Colombiana…I still have no idea what the hell we were arguing about).
Every single word and phrase your learn brings you one step closer to understanding the people all around you. Language learning becomes fun. And more than that, it becomes EMPOWERING. I never knew I loved learning languages till I started learning them in the right places.
Learn this phrase immediately: “Sorry, my [Spanish] is shit.” And not “bad” or “poor”, but “shit”. And say it with a smile. This sentence was my number one most repeated phrase by far.
This is perfect because right off the bat you’re, 1) letting them know you’re a beginning Spanish speaker who they’ll need to be patient with, 2) you immediately get them laughing, 3) you get to express a bit of personality and humor, setting yourself apart from all the other foreigners who no habla Espanol. Way better then just giving them a blank look and saying, “Huh?”
Screw grammar for now. In the beginning, pour your time and energy into learning as much vocab as possible, not grammar. Don’t worry about perfectly conjugating that past participle. Worry about actually knowing enough words to get a point across! If you’re stuck on trying to get all your sentences perfect, you’ll never even open your mouth. So what, you’ll sound like an idiot, but they’ll get what you’re trying to say and that’s what matters.
Learn some !@$*ing slang! Let’s be honest, the way you learned Spanish in school makes you sound like a bland, no-personality robot (“Hi. How are you? It is hot today.”) C’mon, that’s not how you talk back at home! Learn how to speak the real language. Learn their slang.
This may not sound too important but it’s one of the first things I ALWAYS do when I’m in a new country. Not only is it fun as hell but it’s one of my favorite ways to make friends with locals. Get them to teach you how to say “What’s up?”, “dude”, some curse words, “That girl is hot”, and region-specific words (like how us Northern Californian’s use “hella”).
I guarantee that endless hours of laughter and easy conversation will ensue. And any new locals you meet will definitely get a laugh when you drop a “Vamos a farriar” (“Let’s go party” in Medellin talk) out of nowhere.
Also keep your ears out for common phrases and the way people talk, then imitate. For examples, Colombians will often say “Bien o no?” right after “Como estas?” (similar to how we say “What’s up? You good?”). Learning slang is a great way to express your personality even when you can barely speak the language.
Sing a little song. Next to learning slang, my other favorite way to connect with locals is to learn one of their songs. It’s really easy: find that song you keep hearing in the bars, memorize the chorus (bonus points if you understand what it means), and hot damn, you’re good to go.
Mine for Colombia were “Si No Le Contesto”, a reggaeton song, and “Yo No Se Manana”, a sappy love ballad (check them out). Anytime I started singing those, Colombians would get a huge kick out of it. And if alcohol was involved, they’d usually join me in a sing-a-long.
It really is a gift that keeps on giving. It’s been half a year since my Berlin trip and I still sing “Nein Mann” to every German I meet (I think I sang it 4 times in the last week – there’s surprisingly a ton of German’s in Colombia). And they always get a kick out the fact that this random American dude knows the words to their ridiculous German techno song. Instant bonding.
Ditch the books, learn on a need-to-know basis. Instead of studying from a book or language course, try this: as you go throughout your non-English speaking day, there’ll be a million moments when you’ll think to yourself, “Shit, how do I say this in Spanish?”. Every time that happens, write it down in your smartphone. Next time you get home or hang out with your local friends, find out what the correct translation is and learn it. Then wash, rinse, repeat.
Instead of spending hours memorizing vocab lists that you’ll never use, this way ensures that you’re learning what you, yourself, ACTUALLY need to know. After doing this for a few days, you’ll realize that there are a few phrases you tend to use over and over again. It’s a cool way to recognize some of your own speech patterns.
Talk, talk, talk. But above all else, no matter what you do, you just need to talk. Constantly. No matter how little you know. No matter how dumb you sound. Being in a foreign country and not knowing the language can be tough, but there’s only one way to get better. And trust me, this ain’t like learning languages in school. Learning a language where it’s actually spoken is a fun, rewarding, and completely eye-opening experience.
I’m writing this on the plane right now, about 2 hours away from SF. My month of living in Medellin, Colombia ended with one helluva bang last night: not only did my buddies throw me an amazing Despedida (farewell party) where all my favorite Colombians and travellers came by to drink Aguardiente; but I also finally got robbed at knife-point by a gang of 7 hombres. If that’s not the complete Medellin experience, I don’t know what is!
No worries though, I’m completely safe and all they took were material things – not including my passport, thank God. They did nick me on the elbow, but the cut scratch is so damn insignificant I can’t even use it to impress chicks. Que lastima. Not a bad way to make a dramatic exit though, eh?
Oh and the photo above is from an English class that I got to teach in Medellin. I got to return the favor and teach these Colombian students a little bit of our slang. Dope.