Not lost in translation

Avoiding misunderstandings abroad takes some homework but doesn't require formal training

March 10, 2007|By Brad Schleicher | Brad Schleicher,Sun reporter

While Brian Grodsky toured China, he navigated the eastern coast, reaching Shanghai with only a few words of Chinese at his disposal. But this seasoned traveler finally hit the language barrier hard over a simple dinner order in Beijing.

After a day of sightseeing, Grodsky sat down to order a chicken dish from a small, brightly lit, home-style Chinese restaurant. He thought all was well until his waiter returned with a huge cooked chicken accompanied by a dainty pair of chopsticks.

"All I wanted was a chicken dish!" said Grodsky, a comparative politics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was studying abroad in Russia in 1994 when he decided to visit China on a whim.

"I flipped through a phrase book and tried to ask for a fork, but all they brought me was a plastic spoon," he said. Grodsky ended up sharing his chicken with other restaurant patrons and bought a roll from a street vendor to end his hunger pangs.

Experiencing cultures and customs is one of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting a foreign country, but a traveler without language skills may be in for a long and frustrating trip. Avoiding a linguistic misunderstanding like Grodsky's takes some preparation but doesn't require years of training.

"Choosing a language program depends on which part of a country you are visiting and how long you are staying," says Stephanie Gumm of Holiday Travel Bureau in Ellicott City.

Gumm says that if you're in a large foreign city for a short period of time (about two weeks or less), attempting to master the language isn't necessary. But, she suggests learning functional phrases. "Phrases related to asking

directions to public transportation, finding the nearest bathroom or even ordering a simple meal are among some of the most useful phrases one can learn before traveling abroad."

"Local libraries carry language tapes and phrase translation books which are very helpful for the casual traveler," says Lois Raimondi Munchel of Amore Travel near Carney. Munchel says that if a traveler wishes to learn part of a language, it is best to study situation-based language that one may use in a conversation. However, if tapes or books are unavailable at your library, there are many other places where language audio, literature and even software are available at affordable prices.

Choosing a phrase translation book should involve shopping around because most travelers carry it with them during their trip. "A traveler should feel comfortable with whichever phrasebook they choose," Gumm says.

Kelly Warner, a student at UMBC, recently returned from a study abroad program in Rome. Knowing very little of the Italian language in the first month of her stay, Warner leaned heavily on Rick Steves' Italian Phrasebook and Dictionary. Warner's parents, who have vacationed abroad for more than 20 years, used it many times while traveling with her. "A lot of the road signs were written in both Italian and English," Warner says. "But [the book] was useful when traveling to the more remote regions of Italy, where the signs were only in Italian."

After learning conversational phrases in a foreign language, it's useful to practice by speaking with others. At, foreign language speakers of all skill levels can search for foreign language groups by city and then coordinate meetings in public places to engage in conversation. offers 11 different foreign language groups, including Arabic, Chinese, German and Turkish, in the Baltimore area.

Interactive programs are another option for travelers. Some language software is even free.

Before You Know It (available at is a free downloadable program that uses digital flash cards to educate users with useful vocabulary and situation-based phrases. However, the Before You Know It program, available in 41 different languages, combines audio and visual techniques to create a more complete language education. Each word and phrase on the flash card is supplemented with audio, providing the proper pronunciation of a word or phrase when the English translation is revealed on the other side of each digital card.

Before You Know It is based on different lists consisting of particular words or phrases, which are divided based on their relevance to a situation or setting. Most of the lists are free, and more are constantly added and updated. Users can post comments and rate lists, making the program more useful to other customers.

Nicholas Detweiler, a student at Goucher College, used Pimsleur instructional CDs to supplement his college Arabic course. Pimsleur was developed over 40 years and is used by the FBI and CIA.

Detweiler said his college class concentrated more on formal language and grammar than actual Arabic conversation. "The Pimsleur CDs were able to teach me more informal Egyptian Arabic conversation and useful phrases than my college class. I would feel much more comfortable now if I chose to study abroad."

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