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"How much language is enough to get by when I am working overseas?"

"How can I quickly gain some basic language skills?"

These are questions that I am frequently asked.  These came to mind as I negotiated unexpected weather interruptions to my travel plans this past month. Typhoons, volcanoes and peak travel season make for interesting travel times!  I found myself negotiating some difficult language barriers as I was endeavoring to re-route and re-ticket airline travel around Asia.

Trying to get by as a traveler when you don't speak the local language is one thing, but trying to work in countries when you don’t speak the language requires a lot of stamina, patience and understanding – sometimes easier said than done.

Some language tips that I find useful are:
  • When you sense that you are getting emotional, stop and assess your thought processes, reactions and behaviours because the effects are feelings of disconnection, isolation, frustration and possibly later regret. 
  • Try to learn some basic phrases before you arrive and focus more on the vocabulary than the grammar.
  • Don't worry about perfection, be prepared to make mistakes and experience moments of vulnerability and give it a go.
  • Learn some slang – this can improve connections with local people and demonstrate to them the effort that you have made.
  • Use technology: If you have a smartphone, download a language app that can articulate local phrases for you. Save the key phrases on your phone.  The more you refer to them the more you will memorise them.
  • Articulate each word carefully so that your accent doesn't confuse the listener.
  • Carry a notebook.  Write down the pronunciation and ask for clarification or even draw pictures, be creative.
  • Make a point of when you find yourself during the day having moments of "how do I say this in the local language" write it down (albeit phonetically) because you will find that these are the most useful words for you to get by with.  Ask locals or refer to your technology.
  • Local markets are a great place to learn useful phrases and vocabulary.  Ask questions, listen and observe body language and language intonation.
  • Have fun with it and say it with a smile.
One of the consequences of language barriers can be the feeling of vulnerability and the uncomfortable reliance on others for assistance; but the upside of this can be that these power differentials can actually lead you to form relationships of greater equality and 'connection'.
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Best Wishes
Tom Verghese

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  Surviving Language Barriers





I read this book a while ago and particularly enjoyed Duhigg's stories, case histories and his lively writing style.   Duhigg is an investigative reporter for the New York Times, taking most of his research from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience. 

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