Never underestimate the power of words. They can make or break your trip. Just by talking with someone on the street or in your dorm, you can learn so much and sometimes even make a friend. Both Ariana and I have a limited, yet somewhat functional Spanish vocabulary. No enough to understand it all, but enough to understand enough. On this trip not only has talking to locals been a practical way of exercising foreign language skills, but also a necessity when trying to find our way in new city. Although we’ve been traveling for over a month now our sense of direction is still far from perfect.
In Valencia, we were in desperate need to find a supermarket before entering into the Aquarium. An elderly couple was walking down the street with a stroller and some children. I must have had a very concerned look on my face because as soon as I said “Perdon…” the lady put her hand gently on my back and looked me in the eyes. As I continued to speak I could by the way she smiled that she genuinely wanted to help us. “Donde esta alimentacion?” She said “Ahhhh!” as soon as she concluded from my broken Spanish that we were looking for a grocery store. “Supermercat! Una Carrefour Es allí”. She pointed down the street to a large mall. Ari and I ran with excitement to the mall, so happy that she was able to help us.
The experience taught me three things. First, there is a lot more to communication than talking. When you’re abroad, you’re often times limited in your ability to speak to people, especially if you’ve never spoken a foreign language. You begin to realize the important role that body language play in communicating. Facial expressions, hand gestures, and emphasis on certain parts of phrases all become clues that make it possible to interpret a language you don’t speak.
Secondly, I learned that a couple words are all it takes to get a the point across. When you’re asking someone on the street for directions, keep it simple. Playing charades can help get the point across, but it’s not very efficient. So instead, try learning a couple key words in the language of the country you travel in. It can really get you out of a bind.
Lastly, ask. When you’re in a foreign country, you may be very hesitant to approach someone on the street to ask for directions. More often than not its because you’re worried that the person doesn’t speak English. For Ari and I it was very hard at first to approach people, because no one seemed to speak English. But that is the wonderful thing about Europe, nearly everyone is bilingual. Around 80% of the people we’ve asked for directions spoke English. The odds are in your favor, so ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find that a lot of people are more than happy to give you directions. All it takes are a couple of words.