Brits Abroad | Dealing With a Language Barrier

The classic image of Brits abroad is not always flattering. Sunburnt and a bit drunk, they’re the tourists who speak English slowly and loudly to locals, gesticulating wildly with their hands to the point of oblivious rudeness. Do you really want to be the person who gets off the plane and attempts to negotiate with your rental car company but ends up having to embarrassingly draw pictures to explain yourself? Don’t let a language barrier put a downer on your holiday! Enjoy the new culture and throw yourself into the language as best you can.

According to a recent study by Holiday Autos, Brits are most familiar with French, with the average adult able to rattle off up to 15 words. Despite millions of Brits travelling to Spain this summer, the average tourist knows just 8 Spanish words. The poll found 27% of Brits make absolutely no effort to learn a language ahead of their holidays to learn Spanish language, as ‘Everyone speaks English.’


But why are we so bad at it? In England, students receive a low amount of hours of foreign language education – only 216 compulsory hours, compared to 790 in Spain. Even more damning, the lessons generally start too late, at age 11, when the brain is past the prime language-acquisition stage. We can partly blame education, although it is mainly the prevalence of English and the lack of imperativeness to learn a second language. Across Europe, bilingualism is the norm, and the vast majority have English as their second language. English is the widest spoken language in the world and one cannot discount the popularity of American film and TV which Europeans tune into. Brits moan about subtitles, so one struggles to envision a group of us getting excited over German TV.

This information might leave you feeling like you missed the boat; however if you are determined to gain what you didn’t attain in your childhood, it’s never too late. Even though our brains are wired for learning during childhood, we now have the emotional intelligence to appreciate the value of a second language.

Here are a few effective ways to learn a new language:

  1. Conversation; If there’s a hack to learning a new language, it’s got to be hours of awkward conversation with people who are more advanced than you in your second language.
  2. Practice with your partner so that you’re both holiday ready. Or, if you’re single, a holiday romance could be just the motivation you need to learn the language!
  3. Start with learning 100 common words. At least you will get the jist of what people are talking about.
  4. Carry a pocket dictionary and download a dictionary app.
  5. Keep your brain busy. We all have monologues running through our heads, why not let your mind wander in a native tongue?
  6. Don’t get embarrassed! You’re going to say a lot of silly things. Accept it.
  7. When you learn a new word, try to use it a few times right away. Repetition is very effective.

The majority of Brits can’t even stumble their way through a conversation in a foreign language. Break out of that stereotype and make a little effort this year. A dictionary could come in handy when you least expect it.

Regardless of whether or not you’re going to learn the lingo before you jet off, don’t forget your manners! Ironically, the most important words for us lazy (yet somehow courteous) Brit’s to learn are ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Excuse me’, which were ranked as more important than words like ‘Beer,’ ‘Wine’, ‘Beach’, or ‘Bill. Would you believe it!

Do you find this is true when you go away? Would love to hear what you think.

Rebecca x*collaborative post

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  • Ever since I’ve been going abroad I’ve been trying to speak the local language when needed. I didn’t try when we went to Turkey because we were staying in a hotel where everyone spoke English and for our few trips out of the building we were still with a majority English speaking group and didn’t need to worry about it. In Holland even when I tried to speak Dutch having been practicing like crazy once I knew we were going, the Dutch people were too excited to practice their English on me so I didn’t need to try.
    In France and Italy I have always tried to speak the local language – In Paris the equivalent of “Queens” French that we are taught in school was fine but when we got to Corcieux near Strasbourg, it was a dilect of French rather than “Queens” and the chap who ran the campsite we were staying on didn’t always understand us!

    Whenever we go abroad, along with a tour guide, a phrase book is the next purchase – even if it’s just basic phrases I at least try. I”m sure some people who prefer that I tried and made a hash of it then just shouted and pointed to get my point across.
    Hannah recently posted…Currently…22nd JuneMy Profile

    • Another thing to try is to watch a film you know well but either with the audio in a foreign language or with the foreign language subtitles on. It does take some more concentration but it’s good fun and helps to learn what they are talking about because you already know the story. Or like me, you find a film you like and keep watching it. One of my very favourites is Amelie which is in French with English subtitles. There’s also Cinema Paradiso which is Italian with English subtitles.

  • He is always great to try to speak a language with the locals. Have your dictionary handy and they will always help you out. Specially with the accent. A simple word can be pronounced differently I’m the same country.