The Silent Tongue
By Laura, age 16, California
How does someone learn to communicate effectively while traveling abroad? Have no fear, my dear friend, I shall accompany you on my glorious journey through this foreign land they call Japan to teach you my ways of the silent tongue. The process of overcoming language barriers whilst traveling abroad is imperative because we are divided by language and need a way to communicate - how else are we going to purchase that amazingly cute handbag? This wondrous adventure will take us through the streets of Tokyo, shopping, speaking with the locals, and being abandoned in the countryside.
When planning to travel abroad it is important to plan out the type of trip you are going to take. Will you travel with people you know? For how long? Where exactly? Do you want a tour guide? But most importantly, you have to realize that most tourists go to well known cities that usually have various English speakers. However, if you were to truly experience the local culture, you would want to stray away from the tourist attractions and wander off into the countryside.
Step 1: Decide where you want to go and if you prefer tourist attractions or local culture. Step one was completed a few months ago; our delegation leaders planned to travel through the cities for one week and then drift into the unknown - the dreaded countryside. You have the location but no means of communicating. Way to go, delegation leaders ... no, really, good job.
"Konnichi wa, hajimemashite." (Hello, nice to meet you.) What did this crazy Asian lady just say to me?!
"Oh, um, konnichi wa." With a slight bow and wave of the hand I greeted Kiyomi, our guide for the next two weeks.
"Oh good, you speak Japanese too?"
"No, no, I just attempted to is all." No one told me she spoke English! My grand efforts were wasted on her.
That night we checked into the Sunshine City hotel, left our bags in our room, glanced at our boxed dinner, and were allowed to roam around like lost puppies, familiarizing ourselves with the hotel mall and city of Tokyo. I made a few friends and ran off, dashing towards the back doors of the hotel, breaking the barrier between the hotel and the outside world. We were engulfed in bittersweet astonishment of complete and total alienation. We were glad to be there. The sights, the sounds, the smells: a new world lay before us, but what to do? Running in and out of stores, awed by the whimsical merchandise and nightlife of Ikebukuro. Though we didn't speak the language, it was not difficult to buy what we wanted or know how to get back to the hotel.
Step 2: Learn a few everyday words and take a small dictionary. Flipping through my booklet I asked the shopkeeper how much the Hello Kitty bag was. "Ikura desu ka?" (How much is it?)
"Hyaku." (100 yen) Now that I understood.
"Onegai shimasu." (I'll take it.) Success! I had achieved my first purchase in a foreign land!
A simple "Konban wa" (Good evening) and "Arigatou" (Thank you) got us through our shopping. It is not necessary to say hello or thank you, but it creates a sense of emotion and relationship. Language is the ability to communicate sense, meaning, and emotion, even when you do not speak or understand the native tongue. Mispronunciation does not matter if you are truly dedicated in immersing yourself in the experience. These formalities and attempts create a brief connection with strangers, which is why immersing yourself in the culture when traveling is important - it's a vigorous adventure.
The final step to overcoming language barriers involves the use of immense imagination.
Step 3: Use visuals, draw, write, or act out. Yes, you may look foolish, and yes, you may possibly humiliate yourself. But what is life without a few risks? On our second week we migrated southwest, where my helpful dictionary was not as helpful as I'd hoped. Stepping into the Starbucks near Mt. Fuji I wondered how I was going to order my drink. Some of my friends spoke slowly and clearly so they could understand their order in English, and some of us just pointed to the pictures on the counter. Who knew a finger could be so powerful? Visuals work just as well in place of verbal communication - sometimes even better, depending on the situation.
Needless to say, overcoming a language barrier is not easy. You must understand how to manipulate situations like shopping and ordering at a restaurant. Be careful though. Some of the Japanese restaurants tend to get all fancy and ask you specific questions about your meal. Merely nodding or shaking your head may be a mistake. So how do you get the meal you want? You don't. Unless some grandiose miracle occurs, you are stuck with what you get.
Spellbound in the countryside of Beppu, Japan, the unfathomable horror, the dreaded home stay, began. I have no problem with getting to know people from the country and staying with them over the weekend, but the possibility that they did not speak English was frightening. You have to depend on these complete strangers who speak gibberish! Of course, I would be scared.
Did my mom not love me? Did my dad get tired of me? Why did they send me on this ghastly trip?! They're trying to get rid of me! That's why they let me come here - I knew it!
Aside from the tad bit of paranoia at the time I tried to relax. Orphaned by my delegation group at the train station, I had no choice but to embrace my new family. Adopted and accepted into my new family, I discovered that the mother spoke comprehensible English, though her accent threw me off at times. The father and daughter spoke little to no English, providing for a very awkward weekend. Even though we only spent two days and three nights together, a bond was formed between us. I had to act out a few things for them to understand me at times, and they had to draw some things out for me. Eventually we resorted to online pictures and even videos for communication, occasionally ending with the mother and father laughing for hours in response to some of my reactions or statements. This, yet again, proves the usefulness of visuals when it comes to communicating.
No matter where you plan to go, to triumph over any communicational obstacle one must be able to understand the situation, know a few words or phrases, draw, point, write, or in dire times, act out what you want to say. I had to humiliate myself in front of strangers on my trip, and you can too. I survived being stranded on an island populated with incomprehensible people, but I made it out alive. Two weeks in Japan and I never got lost once, yet you can find me running in circles at a Las Vegas casino.