When Things Go Wrong: Language Barriers


We are lucky enough to be able to travel frequently. We love experiencing the cultures, cuisines, and customs of the countries we visit. Also we can honestly say that we have loved every city and country that we have visited. However, that does not mean that things always go smoothly. Despite our best efforts to plan accordingly, sometimes things go awry.


Map from Britannica Estonia page. Click map to go to page.


First, let us discuss an obvious issue that many travelers have encountered during their vacations: language barriers. In 2015, we visited Tallinn, Estonia. The country itself is gorgeous. The food was delicious. The people were friendly and could communicate with us despite our ignorance of their beautiful language. We are not saying we expect proficient English speakers to be available to us as we dot around the globe. On the contrary, we should have made more of an effort to learn basic Estonian phrases before we decided to do what we are prone to do---go off the beaten path.


Photo courtesy of J. Christopherson-Degan. Link to Olde Hansa in photo.


After a delicious lunch, visiting Olde Hansa, and sampling schnapps, we began to wander through the city. We followed the cobblestone streets that curved down the hillside and marveled at the ancient stone architecture. We did not notice that the bustling crowd began to thin out as we walked deeper into the city. Soon we found ourselves on a quiet street with no sense of direction. The winding roads had thrown us off, and we suddenly found ourselves lost. This would not have been an issue if the GPS tracking on our cell phones was working, but it was not.


Photo courtesy of J. Christopherson-Degan. Link to Lonely Planet Tallinn travel guide in photo.


One of the people we were traveling with was wheelchair bound; and therefore he needed constant assistance. While he was enjoying his Tallinn experience, the cobblestones were quite rough. After a few hours of being jostled about, he was starting to experience pain. We knew we needed to get him back to his room to alleviate his discomfort. We decided we needed to hail a taxi to get him there as soon as possible.

That was the first hurdle. How do we get a taxi? We looked around and spotted many, but when we would roll up, the drivers would rapidly shake their heads. The wheelchair could not be accommodated. We rapidly became frustrated as we pushed our companion up hill on uneven cobblestones. We searched for a street sign with a recognizable name, but once again found ourselves woefully underprepared for our Estonian adventure. All the signs were in Estonian, and Estonian is clearly not a Romance language with familiar vulgar Latin origins.


Photo courtesy of J. Christopherson-Degan.


After some time, we spotted a cab that could store the wheelchair and comfortably seat four very tired and cranky adults. We loaded into the vehicle and got settled while one of us tried to tell the patient cab driver where we needed to go. The driver looked bewildered and confused as we tried to explain our destination. He, too, had no idea what we were saying to him.

While we resigned to the fact that we may have to unload and continue our journey on foot, a kind citizen walked up to us. He noticed our struggle to communicate and offered his help. We collectively breathed a sigh of relief as he clearly understood where we needed to go. He spoke to the cab driver, and he immediately shook his head in ascension. We profusely thanked the kind stranger and apologized for the inconvenience.


Photo courtesy of J. Christopherson-Degan.


As we began the drive to our destination, we felt the tension fall from our shoulders. Somehow we had managed to find a way back to our rooms. However, we are completely aware that it was absolutely nothing that we did that got us out of our predicament. We were lucky enough to find a taxi that could load a wheelchair. As the language barrier was insurmountable, if it were not for that kind citizen offering to translate, we definitely would not have been able to make it back to our rooms.

Later that evening, as we leisurely ate dinner, we made the decision that should have been at the forefront of our travel preparations. We should learn basic language phrases for the countries we planned on visiting. Out of respect for the country that is hosting you, it never hurts to put in some effort to learn a bit of their language and customs. If language learning is not your thing, there are also several translator apps that can aid you in communicating with people who speak different languages. If anything, it is the very least that can be done. The arrogance of some travelers expecting their language and customs to be adhered to while traveling to other countries gives other tourists a bad rap.

While non-essential travel bans have not lifted yet, we know many are itching to travel. In preparation, there are many language apps that can be perused to aid people in their future world adventures. Also, it is important to follow quarantine procedures and COVID-19 health and safety regulations at each destination.


Here are some of the more popular options for free language instruction:

- Busuu

- Mondly

- Duolingo

- Rosetta Stone

- Babbel


We definitely learned our lesson on that trip, and we are always mindful of language barriers while we travel. While we had a moment of uncertainty, it definitely did not get in the way of us appreciating the rich history, delicious food, and kind people of Estonia.


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