Getting by When you Don’t Speak the Local Language

Cameron Clark, CSSH'22

Hello! My name is Cam and I study linguistics at Northeastern. I’m on my third global experience with Northeastern right now in Sydney, Australia. Last summer I did a dialogue of civilizations in Greece, and earlier this year I did a global co-op in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I love electronic music, concerts, and festivals, and I’ve been producing my own music for about a year! I also love to travel, play Dungeons & Dragons, and go skiing. I’m looking forward to seeing all sorts of exotic wildlife in Australia and learning how to surf/scuba dive, and I can’t wait to come home and tell the tales of my adventures down under.

When I stepped off the plane in Mongolia last January, I spoke absolutely zero words of Mongolian. I waltzed into the airport and into a sea of conversations I couldn’t understand. Every corner I turned, I was met with a smorgasbord of Cyrillic letters that might as well have been Hungarian or Japanese or Martian. Exhausted from a twenty-six-hour flight and jetlagged beyond belief, I made my way to the Tom n’ Tom’s café (the Mongolian equivalent of Starbucks) near the front gate and had my first interaction with a Mongolian person – if you could even call it that. I stood at the counter and asked for a chocolate cookie and a small coffee, doing my best to pronounce the Cyrillic letters on the menu. I had learned how to read Cyrillic just for situations like this, but unfortunately, it didn’t help me very much. The barista gave me a confused look, and I resorted to simply pointing at what I wanted, like a toddler in a grocery store demanding something sweet from his mother. Thankfully she understood, and I sat down to enjoy my much-needed reprieve from the chaos of traveling.

Once I had finished my snack, I stepped out of the airport to make my way to my apartment, and rather abruptly I learned that Mongolian nights often get as cold as -40 degrees, before windchill. The cold air hit me like a truck and I wondered why I had come here in the first place. After a few months, the cold went away, but the difficulties of communicating stayed with me right up until I left. Altogether, it was an exciting and enriching experience, but it could have been much easier for me if I had known a few things before I arrived. And so, I’ve come to impart my wisdom unto you, you brave world traveler. If you are planning on doing a global co-op or a study abroad in a place where you might not understand the people around you, look no further, this article is for you. Without further adieu, here are the best tips I can give you!

A phrasebook is better than a dictionary

Ideally, traveling in a new place, you should have a phrasebook and a dictionary. However, if you had to choose only one, definitely take the phrasebook. A dictionary will allow you to communicate very simple ideas, generally one word at a time. This can help but it can also be a hindrance. If a foreigner came up to you while you were walking around in Boston, and said to you with a very confused look, “Restaurant?”, you would be confused as well. Are they asking for any restaurant? Are they looking for an American restaurant? Or are they asking for the best restaurant? On the other hand, if they approached you and asked “Where is a restaurant?”, you would know immediately that they’re just looking for any sort of food. A phrasebook isn’t going to allow you to speak the language fluently by any stretch, but it should have translations for most questions that you would want to ask. And if you carry both with you, you’ll be golden! The phrasebook might have a translation for “where is ___?”, but it might not have the word for “ice cream” or “gym.” This is where you can combine them to make your own questions and be understood even better!

Learn as much as you can before you arrive

When I accepted the job in Mongolia, I hastily began to search for any way of learning the language before I arrived. Unfortunately, I came up rather short. Mongolian is an obscure language and there aren’t many resources for learning it online beyond random Reddit posts and a YouTube video here or there. Even though I couldn’t learn the language itself, I did learn how to read the letters. Mongolian is written in Cyrillic (the same alphabet as Russian), and after a few days of practice, I had mastered the alphabet myself. The ability to read signs and menus helped me out immensely while I was there and I would’ve been completely lost at a few points without it. Generally, knowing how to pronounce a word won’t help you understand it, but as you settle in and begin learning a few basic words, you’ll soon find that you no longer need Google Translate open on your phone at all times, and you’ll feel much more in tune with the world around you.

Grammar is more important than vocabulary

As a linguistics major, I can tell you this with one hundred percent certainty. Knowing a bit of grammar is much, much more important for understanding and speaking a foreign language than knowing a bunch of vocabulary. Think of the language as a pizza. If the grammar, the basic foundation of the language, is the crust and the cheese, the vocabulary is all the toppings. If you know some grammar, then bam! You’ve got yourself a cheese pizza. It’s basic, it’s not very exciting, and it could certainly be improved upon, but it gets the job done. Now imagine you know zero grammar and a whole bunch of vocabulary. You open the pizza box and it’s just a pile of pepperoni, olives, mushrooms, and lots of other random ingredients that don’t really mesh well. Most importantly, there’s no base for the toppings to sit on! You could certainly eat this, but at this point, it’s more a jumbled up word salad than a language. Most likely you’d call the pizza place and demand a refund, while simultaneously throwing your “meal” into the bin.

If you can learn some simple grammatical structures – how to ask questions, how to speak in the present tense, personal pronouns like “you” and “I” – you’ll be much better off than the shmuck who carries around a box full of solitary toppings and calls it a pizza. If you carry a dictionary with you, you’ll be able to quickly search up a word and immediately apply it to your grammatical knowledge. If you offer someone a slice of cheese pizza and they say it’s not enough, you can throw some onions on it and they’ll be much more inclined to eat it.

I’m starting to get hungry so I suppose now would be a good time to end this article. In short, just try your best to learn the language before you get there, and make sure you learn the parts that actually matter. Your phrasebook is your best friend, and a dictionary is your phrasebook’s best friend. When in doubt, use gestures and point at things until somebody understands you, and never, ever offer someone a handful of olives without a delicious cheese pizza for them to sit on.