Surviving Language Barriers with your Wits

Lost in Translation (Photo: Flickr)

Lost in Translation (Photo: Flickr)

When you travel to a foreign country, you can certainly expect to encounter language barriers. Or you just try to wing it and try to make your way through using sign language or basic English. So what happens when you encounter no favourable conditions? Well, you survive by whatever means you possibly can.

For me, this happened to force me out of my comfort zone and plunged into a bizarre time as an interpreter in Korea.

For English, you think?

No, for Chinese.

Using Chinese to survive in Korea?

My exact sentiments. You can certainly expect the unexpected when you travel.

Do I speak Chinese?

No, it’s not my mother tongue but I studied Chinese for about 2 years during my university days.

Am I fluent in Chinese?

No, I rarely speak Chinese here even though I have a lot of Chinese friends. That’s because my pronunciation is appalling from lack of practice so I would rather not embarrass myself with them. I can understand better than speaking and I can speak simple phrases with my colleagues. That is it!!!

The best part? It’s not even for me!

So I opened my room door one night at the hostel to see the very nice manager asking me for help.

Standing at the reception counter was this tall Asian man. He started talking Chinese to me and I asked him whether he could speak English.


My first thought was “Why did the manager ask for me? Do I look Chinese?”

I don’t but I do have my rusty Chinese to fall back on.

So with a resolute smile on my face, the 3 of us went on to check out the room because the guy wanted to take a look at the room before agreeing on it.

And so each question went like this: He (Chinese) –> Me (English) –> Manager. Manager (English) –> Me (Chinese) –> Guy. It was a slow process but we eventually got him settled.

Interpretation services came to an end. I joked with the manager that he should pay me for my services. Haha. I went back to my room.


I opened the door again to a very sheepish looking manager. I laughed out loud at him and went to his rescue yet again.

Guy now wanted to order something off one of the advertisements showing on television. I went through the 3 way process all over again.

And so it went for the next few days that he was there.

I returned home to an impressed group of friends, amazed that I could still converse in Chinese after all those years of disuse.

I informed them confidently that “Oh, I just spoke simple words to him, very simple ones!”

“How simple?”

“Oh, for example, we were talking about visiting the castles in Seoul. I could not remember the word for castle in Chinese. So I just told him – 的地方 (Wang Zhu De Di Fang) 

It literally translates to the place the king lived in.

Simple yet effective. 

17 thoughts on “Surviving Language Barriers with your Wits

  1. That’s a hilarious story! Hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get by. I find myself using A LOT of hand motions to communicate when I’m in foreign countries 🙂


  2. Great story! Good on you!! Hehehe – sometimes you don’t need the actual word, just enough words to describe what it is you are trying to say 🙂 Exactly what you did!!!
    Communicating is such a fun part of being in a foreign country. At times, yes frustrating but most of the time amusing.
    We feel that sometimes it becomes like a game of charades when we have gone past “basics” and have to start acting when both parties don’t quite understand each other.
    We have had to try and “act” our salt to some French locals, a plug for the basin in Portugal and bread in Greece. We got there in the end. And it was all smiles for everyone!


    • Haha…yes, i do agree that you sometimes end up miming a lot to get your point across…whatever works right? And you definitely end up with a lot of laughs over it..haha…:)


  3. Another great story! They were lucky you were willing to help them!!

    It is funny because during our visit to Korea, we went to one of the tourist centers located in the countryside of Korea where we were visiting. No one could speak English but one of them could speak Chinese so we got our questions answered using Chinese.


  4. Hahaha, good for you!! But next time, you can just call 1330. It’s the Korea Travel hotline, and they provide free translation in english, chinese and japanese for expats and travellers. You can ask them almost anything, and they’re open 24 hours a day. Lol. I’m surprised the owner of that guesthouse doesn’t know about it!!

    Of course, then you wouldn’t have a fun story for your blog, would you?? 😉


    • Ahh…yes…I’ve called the number a couple of times before…but I suppose it didn’t occur to me then…and I was able to manage so I suppose it worked out fine in the end…but yes!! It was a fun story for the blog…haha…:)


  5. Well I’m impressed. Not just that you speak Chinese, but that you’re willing to go out of your way to help an unknown hotel manager and a guest with translations. That says a lot about YOU!


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