I studied Japanese for over seven years. Some I picked up when I lived in Japan, but most of the little I know came from classes I took in college. Japanese is one of the four most difficult languages for English speakers to learn (the other three are Mandarin, Korean, and Arabic), and fluency requires a deep commitment to sticking with it no matter how frustrating it can become. The difficulty in learning Japanese comes not just from the different writing system, but because of the social systems that are embedded in the language. A speaker always has to know their social relationship with the person they are interacting with and choose their vocabulary or form accordingly.
After all that study though, I know less than a Japanese two year-old. I can read hiragana and katakana though, the two phonetic writing systems, as well as a few kanji, so I can get around OK when I’m in Japan. I can understand when people tell me how much something costs, or give me basic directions. But, as I found out when I went to Japan for two weeks in 2014, that still didn’t get me very far at all.
It’s not just Japanese though. The signs below, one in Norwegian and the other in Afrikaans (South Africa) are just as confusing for me.
- Get a phrase book and practice before traveling. There are YouTube videos and other sources that can help with pronunciation so that a native speaker can understand you. A little of your host country’s language can go a long way.
- Take a language class before traveling, if possible. Classes are often offered at community colleges, or through adult educations. Public libraries often have language programs for check out, and Rosetta Stone programs are a good way to pick up the basics, although you have to pay for them.
- Invest in a pocket translator. These can be very helpful, and many are available in app form for your phone. You can also use Google Translate offline now.
- The time to ask for something in English is when you’re lost or need help, not when you’re ordering dinner. English is a world language, and in countries around the world English is a required course for many people. If you’re sincerely having a problem, someone will be willing to help. Hotel staff can write instructions for taxi drivers, etc., show where places are on a map and tell you how to get there.
- Focus on communicating versus perfection. Don’t be afraid to try to speak another language because you might make a mistake or lack fluency. Mistakes can and will happen and are unlikely to cause an international incident.
Language is one of the primary carriers of culture for any place in the world. Learning a little of another country’s language whenever you go somewhere can not only open doors, but will also help you develop a better understanding of the place you’re visiting.
As an added bonus, here’s one of my all-time favorite indecipherable signs, from Cambodia. Even if I knew what it was saying, I’m not sure I’d get it: