Photo: Street food Phetchaburi Soi 10, Bangkok.

Southeast Asia forum

How do you overcome the language barrier when meeting locals?

Posted by exacto on 13/2/2014 at 12:59

There have been a few good threads lately with comments by MADMAC and Cunning and China about overcoming the language and cultural barriers when meeting locals while travelling through southeast Asia. I'm getting ready for a trip to Indonesia in June, and while I've been spending time every day trying to learn some basic Bahasa, there is no chance I'll get good enough at it to have a meaningful conversation with a local person unless they already speak Inggris.

So, what tips and suggestions and strategies and experiences do you have on overcoming the language barrier and meeting up with the people who live where we want to visit? Thanks.

#1 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,657
 Where has exacto been? 

Posted by felipedatt on 13/2/2014 at 13:37

Well, I was born in Brazil and I`ve always felt that is easier for me to communicate with locals in countries like Thailand, Indonesia or Bosnia. Fellow travellers from UK, Australia or New Zealand sometimes struggle way more. The language barrier is basically the same, but I think is more difficult for you guys to change the way you speak, which is sometimes quite different from what people learn in english schools. What I mean is that is easier for me not to speak a perfect english and be understood in the end. Simplicity is the rule, considering many locals in the mentioned countries know only a few worlds in english. Having english as a second language I can always go back to "basic 1" or "intermediate" levels on my mind. Does it make any sense?

#2 felipedatt has been a member since 26/7/2012. Posts: 6


Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 13/2/2014 at 17:20

Plenty of indos under 35 will speak english, certainly in the major cities.

Just smile and talk to people. Maybe carry a map so u have an excuse to start a conversation.

#3 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148

Posted by exacto on 13/2/2014 at 19:05

There was an interesting difference of perspective in the other thread between China and Cunning. China was talking about a meaningful conversation, but Cunning was talking about a meaningful connection. Those two aren't the same. I'd agree with China that to have a meaningful conversation, you absolutely both need good command of a common language. But just for that meaningful connection, language isn't even really necessary at all. My wife still talks about the time in Luang Prabang that a group of guys invited us to watch a world cup game on this crappy tv they'd set up in the street. We sat with them and shared a beer or three and cheered for both teams. It was remarkably and unexpectedly fun.

Having said that, I think most conversations with folks, even when you have a language in common, don't go very far. I used to call it the Farang who speaks Thai conversation. Where are you from? Where did you learn Thai? You speak Thai very well (whether it was true or not). etc. Pleasant, but not meaningful. Ultimately it was much easier to shoot for the meaningful connection with someone you'd interact with over ordinary everyday stuff.

In any case, I like the map suggestion above. It isn't just an excuse to start a conversation, but a common reference item where just a few words of English or Bahasa or Thai could go a long way combined with basic signs and body language. I'll plan to do that this trip and see where it goes. Ta.

#4 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,657
 Where has exacto been? 

Posted by MADMAC on 13/2/2014 at 23:40

Exacto, I think you hit the nail on the head here. Connection does not have to be dependent on detailed conversation. Also, common interests can go a long way. As you have often pointed out, I use dance and chess as vehicles for that. For some maybe it's sports, for other Yoga, it doesn't matter what the vehicle is.

Also, as Exacto says, many conversations are superficial. But so are most conversations with other "farang". I noticed this in the expat set here. I don't hang out with hardly any expats because although we share language, we do not share interests. So conversations tend to be pretty shallow and uninteresting. The one guy I do spend a lot of time with shares my interests in chess and boxing.

#5 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 14/2/2014 at 01:57

Most talks between blokes are shallow comments about sport or women.

Its the connection and beers that makes it fun.

Language isnt that important.

#6 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148

Posted by MADMAC on 15/2/2014 at 04:31

I notice how everyone is jumping on board this one with a wide range of opinions...

#7 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 15/2/2014 at 06:40

Bps dont care. No interest in the locals.

#8 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148

Posted by exacto on 15/2/2014 at 20:00

MADMAC's comment about conversations with other westerners being superficial got me thinking. Basically, most conversations I have nearly anywhere with anyone, including in my home town are pretty superficial, when you think about it. It made me think about when I go to a restaurant in my home town with a group of friends. Unless I know someone at one of the other tables, it is very unlikely I will socialize with them at all during the meal. If I know them, it is very likely that I'll socialize with them.

Anyway, I'm drawing a connection between that group of westerners MADMAC noticed at a local Mukdahan restaurant or pub not talking to anyone but their own group. Maybe it wasn't a westerner vs. Thai thing but just a who I know vs. who I don't situation.

One difference I've also noticed travelling in Europe is what I'd call social distance. Despite being superficially friendly, I think Americans have a greater social distance than other nationalities. In Europe, for example, it isn't unusual to be placed at a table in a restaurant that already has people at it. It's a practical matter. But that would almost never happen in the states. We just don't mix in with others that way.

I still think you guys are too hard on others on the mixing in with locals situation. To be fair, you are married to locals, right? That would give you a huge advantage to have a full-time cultural ambassador to help you. It also gives you incentives, living or frequently travelling there, that other short-time visitors just wouldn't have. Plus, as I've said before, an outgoing and adventurous personality helps.

But what kinds of things do you do when you socialize with locals? Chess? Food and beer and sports on TV? Dance? What else? I remember hanging out a karaoke bars or country music joints in Bangkok with my Thai friends when I lived there. It wasn't my first choice, but they loved it, and it was fun to experience Thailand as they did.

What exact things do you guys do?

#9 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,657
 Where has exacto been? 

Posted by MADMAC on 15/2/2014 at 23:36

Exacto
I think environment is a big factor. Now, perhaps because I am an extreme extrovert, I am a little different on this count. But even when in the states, if I go to a social setting, a bar, a dance club, church... I will socialize for sure.

A big difference here outside of tourist areas (which again is a factor because i agree with Leonard, most Backpackers aren't leaving the tourist trail because they are following the herd and culture isn't actually a factor in their considerations) is that you will be approached by people because they want to talk to you. You are a curiousity item in a place where there aren't so many white faces.

As for Americans vice Europeans, I actually think Americans are, on the whole, more extroverted in general, although the shared table thing is an accurrate observation. But in general, Americans and Europeans share much more from a cultural standpoint than those elements that differentiate us, so it's pretty much a wash.

As for what I do - lot of variety there. I have worked building things will people here before, but that's not a likely tourist activity. Of course I train all the time in TKD. I go to the fights sometimes and of course socialize with "locals" there. Sometimes I'll go shoot pool with the "locals". You can't (or shouldn't) come here without spending one night at a Karaoke bar, it is such a quintessential indigenous thing to do.

I wouldn't be hard on "travellers" if they would lose the arrogance. They're not "travellers", they're tourists. They are not better people or more sophisticated than any other kind of tourists. They are pretending they are interested in culture, but actually they are interesting in passport stamps, photo ops and pontificating with other "travellers" in the evenings. Then when they go home they can show everyone how enlightened they are that they weren't just hanging out at the beach in a nice hotel, but they were "roughing it". They'll get a few pictures with some market lady to show they were rubbing elbows with the "locals", but the only elbow rubbing was happening when they got the photo. I don't want to be too hard on everyone, because this isn't true of everyone. Some of the folks do the non-beach, non-sex tourist thing because they genuinely are interested in architecture. Some because they love to see Karst scenery and the like. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you are not placing yourself on a pedestal because you choose that style of vacationing. It was exactly this arrogance that led to my first post here long ago.

#10 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 16/2/2014 at 04:59

Normal stuff
Eating
Drinking
Playing cards
Listen8ng to music
Dancing
Watching movies
Going to restaurants

I dont go to karaoke bars. Not all Thais are.into that. Rather go to a club with live music show.

#11 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148

Posted by MADMAC on 16/2/2014 at 09:20

Leonard you've never done Karaoke? How can you live here and never go? I don't go often, but sometimes all my friends want to go... so I go.

#12 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 16/2/2014 at 16:12

1 i dont live there
2 the thais i know havent been to a karaoke bar for years
3 ive done karaoke via youtube.

#13 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148

Posted by MADMAC on 16/2/2014 at 22:25

Oh man, I thought you lived here.

I'll admit I'm not a huge fan, but my wife likes it, and I don't hate it so I go sometimes.

#14 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 17/2/2014 at 02:53

Id go if the offer was open but they arent into it.

#15 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148


Please login to add a reply

You need to be a Travelfish member to be able to add a reply to this post. Please use the button below to log in. After logging in you'll be returned to this page automatically to add your post. Not a member? Join up here.