Getting Over Language Barriers: Je Ne Comprends Pas

One thing that makes me feel really uneasy when travelling abroad is not being able to speak the native language of a country. I just feel plain rude if I cannot communicate properly with people.

I remember walking through the streets of Milan, completely lost, and trying to ask for directions. Nobody spoke English and my Italian stopped at ‘Si’. I eventually resorted to participating in some strange body language similar to an air hostess doing the safety checks at the beginning of a flight. 

I felt awful and thought to myself: Why can’t I be fluent in Italian? I also scorned myself for not having learnt the language to some degree. 

But, realistically, unless you are some supreme language guru, there are always going to be places where you are unable to speak in the native tongue.Therefore, what is the point of beating yourself up about it? 

eiffel tower and river seine in Paris

When I eventually got to visit Paris this Spring, I was excited to be visiting a country where I was ‘quite’ familiar with the language. I studied French at school so thought I might be able to handle myself conversationally in the usual day-to-day scenarios. In reality my talents for French were pas bien, but I did try. Oh yes I certainly tried.

In restaurants, I was perfectly happy dishing out the correct words for what I wanted to eat. But, the problem was, I could not understand a word of what was said back to me and quickly had to resort to the dreaded “Je ne comprends pas.” 

Within ten minutes of arriving at our hotel, I found myself wildly gesticulating to the receptionist, basically trying to communicate that we did not have any toilet roll in the room. Before this, I had smiled while saying something like “toilette papier pas”. I just got a blank look. In the end, I again resorted to the cop out of “je ne comprends pas”. Damn! Why do I put myself through it. She speaks English for crying out loud, I thought.

But then, back to my original point, I just feel so rude not at least trying to speak French. Even if it means looking like a complete fool.


What have been your experiences of language barriers? Do you think it is important to speak the native language(s) in the places you visit?



  1. October 26, 2011 / 04:45

    I think it’s important to be polite, to have patience and to practice charades before you go!

    • October 26, 2011 / 08:54

      I agree, especially on being polite. It’s one thing looking like a complete idiot (like me) but another thing to be a rude idiot. I find smiling helps as well. I always carry a language book with me wherever I go now, and check basic phrases before trip. I have definitely learnt my lesson! Thanks for your comment :-)

  2. October 27, 2011 / 17:41

    A smile always works wonders. And definitely try to get a list of important phrases…

    • October 27, 2011 / 19:53

      Thanks Lilian. It’s true, A smile is completely universal in communicating friendliness. As they say, if in doubt smile and nod your head!