What do you feel when you are in a country where you don’t speak the language? Most people say they feel insecure, vulnerable, uneasy, often frustrated and embarrassed. In short, they feel lost. Lost in translation. But why? What exactly makes us feel this particular way?

There is no underestimating the importance of language. Even today, in the era of Google Translate, a good command of a foreign tongue is an indescribable advantage; especially when travelling. If you know a few simple words and basic phrases, that’s great – you will buy a fresh pineapple at the market. But you will still be like a fish out of water. To change it, you have to communicate with the locals. And to be able to do that, you have to know their lingo really well. Let me explain to you why.

Whenever we go to another country, we leave our “home”. We leave our comfort zone; we leave everything we are familiar with. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a completely different place where people have different customs, ways of thinking and behaving, and – not always but often – where people speak a different language. Like that proverbial fish, we simply feel out of our environment. This feeling has its “name” – culture shock. There are many factors that contribute to this rather unpleasant experience; language barrier is one of them.

Let’s be completely honest here, listening and speaking in a foreign tongue when you are not fluent is tiring. Not only do you have to understand what others are saying, but also you have to find a way to express your needs. Neither of these is easy. We are usually too embarrassed to admit we don’t understand and too unsure to dare to speak. In consequence, many problems may arise.

Some of them are only minor difficulties and misunderstandings, such as not being able to ask for directions when you need to go somewhere, or ordering pork instead of turkey. Not a big deal, at worst you will wander around in confusion and eat a domesticated pig in lieu of a Thanksgiving dinner. However, you may also be faced with a lot more stressful situations. I won’t even mention getting help in case of emergency, but things like social isolation and loneliness can really turn your stay in a foreign country into an absolute nightmare. Inability to talk to other people because you lack proper words is disheartening. It makes you feel inadequate and left out. Which, when you think about it rationally, has no sense at all. Why would we care about what others – total strangers! – think of us? Should it matter? It probably shouldn’t, but somehow we do care. Well, blame it on our human nature.

So you already know that rudimentary language knowledge can be pretty troublesome. But does this mean that language fluency is a solution for feeling less “lost in translation” and more “at home” when abroad? Of course not. But it may help; tremendously.

Every language belongs to a specific place – a country, region, territory. It is inextricably connected to culture and history of that place. Speaking a foreign tongue on a basic or even intermediate level won’t let you understand cultural nuances and subtleties. You will be able to hold a conversation with local inhabitants, but you won’t be able to fully grasp the meaning of at least some of their sentences. Surprisingly, this can occur even when you visit a country where people speak the same language as you. It is not without reason that someone once said the UK and the US are two countries separated by a common tongue. So what can happen? A nice local person makes a friendly remark or comment, which gets misinterpreted because you are not that fluent in their lingo. You feel slightly insulted or hurt. The communication fails, and you are like that fish once again.

It is not a secret that learning a foreign language improves our cultural intelligence. It helps us understand how users of that language think and why they act and behave in a certain way. Without this knowledge we will always feel lost in their land. Hawaiian “ohana”, for example, is not the same as “family”, “aloha” is not the same as “hello”. But if you know your “mauka” from “makai”, you will at least be able to navigate the islands of the 50th state like a pro.

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