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Life in Europe: Overcoming Language Barriers

Jill Biggerstaff is from Canada and completed our Trinity CertTESOL in June 2016. She has travelled extensively throughout Europe. In this blog post, she explains what life in Europe was like for her and how she has overcame language barriers and picked up some tips for her classes along the way.

Travel Europe teach English
Jill with friends in Prague

I’m from the West Coast of Canada where the majority of people speak English, so despite the official languages of the country being English and French I only speak English. This year presented me with over half a year off of university, so I decided to travel Europe for 4 months. My 2.5 months in Central Eastern Europe brought many challenges, including communicating with locals.


What I didn’t know when I planned my trip was that the Oxford TEFL program in Prague would help prepare me for my upcoming travels, giving me techniques to overcome any language barriers.

It didn’t occur to me until the end of my trip that I had spent 2.5 months in countries whose first language isn’t English. This meant that I had in some way or another overcome these language barriers. Upon reflection I noticed I used similar techniques I had used in the classroom with Oxford TEFL. Primarily, I complemented my English speaking with gestures. In the markets I’d indicate I wanted two cucumbers with two fingers and the local would pick up two cucumbers and gesture a confirmation that the order was correct. It only seemed natural to speak with my hands and the receiver to respond in a similar manner.

A more uncommon form of communication used with locals is written words or symbols. Generally, cashiers in corner stores did not speak English and so they would circle the total on the bill to indicate the amount owed. As well, in a hostel I met a Norwegian woman who spoke English, but at times it was hard to make out the word she was trying to say. In order to overcome this in conversation she would spell out the word in English and when I spoke to her about my time in Norway I spelled out the names of places I’d visited, as I could not pronounce them. This technique never occurred to me before as a way to communicate; however, I utilized this technique in the classroom in order to clarify similar sounding words or when introducing a new word to the learners.

In my travels I made an effort to try to communicate in the local language and many amusing instances arose. For instance, in Prague I learned basic phrases, such as hello and thank you, which I could use in my interactions.  One time a group of friends and I said thank you in Czech at a restaurant and our server stopped to help us brush up on the pronunciation. This proved entertaining for all of us, including the server who appreciated our efforts.A month later I was in Croatia ordering tickets for a ferry and the desired destination had an unusual spelling. I had no idea how to pronounce it, yet I tried my best and received an amusing smile from the lady, who then pronounced it correctly in Croatian. The locals really appreciated any effort to try to pronounce the unusual sounds and strange word combinations of their language.

When I returned to the United Kingdom, my last stop, I could not figure out why I felt relieved. Finally, I realized that communicating and listening to people speak a language you don’t understand is draining. Although the experience was invaluable and I enjoyed the different environments each country presented, it was a relief to understand written signs and be able to communicate with all of the locals. In the end it is amazing to see that the meaning by an individual and myself was made clear in every instance.

How do you overcome language barriers when you travel? Do you have any tips for us? If you would like to travel and teach abroad, read more about out Trinity CertTESOL course, apply or get in touch for more information.


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