[#32 Lesson] Language Barriers Make Travelling Interesting

This life lesson relates to my previous blog #32 Drink Sake in Japan.

Our trip through Japan was one big culture shock. From the moment that I stepped off the plane, everything felt vastly different from any country that I had travelled to before. The food, the signs, the outfits, the lights; it all felt so strange.

I am only fluent in English, but I know bits and pieces of a few other languages. This is usually enough for me to get by while travelling to new countries. During my 10-hour flight I made sure to practice a few key words and phrases to help me out. Speaking the language is not too bad if you are shown the phonetics of how to pronounce the words.

The problem lies in the written language. Japanese uses three different scripts (alphabets) and they are not even remotely close to the English alphabet with which we are familiar. For that reason, I found it incredibly hard to see patterns in the words I was learning and the written text.


Take Spanish for example. When you go to the toilet you see the word baño over the door. The letters are familiar, and it is easy for you to reach the conclusion that toilet = baño in Spanish. When I went to the toilet in Japan, I saw the symbol for toilet in all three scripts. First, I had to try to remember all three scripts in case the next bathroom that I needed to find only had one of the scripts above the door.

Second, I was not always looking for a bathroom at the end of a restaurant. Restaurant bathrooms in pretty much every country around the world are at the back. Venture and you shall find. However, if I wanted to find a public toilet, I needed to identify one of those three symbols amongst the hundreds of other symbols that I was seeing for the first time. This made things interesting.


The language barrier extended to every aspect of our trip. Ordering food, listening for announcements and ordering sake all became very delicate tasks. It became easy to miss things or order the wrong food. This did not ruin the trip by any means. Instead it made it even better and more exciting. Luckily, the worst thing to happen to us because of the language barrier was the 91-octane sake that Toby ordered for us that night.

Breaking down those language barriers is yet another reason that I am so passionate about travelling. I love picking up little bits of languages each time that I visit new places and enjoy building my vocabulary. This adds to the culture shock and makes for great memories when things do go slightly wrong.

When have language barriers made your travels interesting? Let me know in the comments below.

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