Traveling to Places where English Isn't Widespread
My first trip out of the United States was a solo trip to Turkey.
I needed to be at a few archaeological sites for about 5 weeks total, but I also scheduled some sightseeing time at the beginning of my trip.
I didn't (and still don't) speak Turkish, though I learned as much as I could before I arrived.
I had never used public transportation.
I had no smart phone service.
Rather an intimidating first journey, given that finding English-speakers is not guaranteed in many parts of Turkey.
So how did I make it?
Well, I planned ahead. I buy a new tiny notebook for every major trip I take, and this trip is the first time I did that.
I copied down my hostel address so I could hand it to the cab driver.
I copied down my hostel confirmation number to show to the people at the hostel (though they spoke amazing English and didn't need a thing from me other than my name...but better to be safe than sorry!).
When I realized I needed a last-minute bus ticket, I used the hostel wi-fi to translate "I need one bus ticket from ____ to _____ at 8:00pm." I confidently strode up to the ticket counter and told the lady there, as precisely as I could pronounce it, what I had translated. She stared at me blankly. Apparently my pronunciation was just as terrible as I feared. Luckily, I had copied it down in my notebook, so I pointed to it and all was well.
Was it awkward? Oh yes. Did I feel remarkably stupid? A million times. But did I get where I needed to go? Indeed I did.
For things less urgent than bus tickets and places to stay, I was more able to wing it. On some of those Turkish archaeological sites, only one person spoke enough English that we could communicate. I was very fortunate that each time, they were happy to help translate and practice their English and teach me more Turkish.
With the others? Well, it's remarkable what gestures, big smiles and nods, and facial expressions can communicate--along with their smart phones, which gave us very mangled translations.
Even better? Once I had established contact at my first site, they were very sweet about getting me on my way to the next place. Someone from the site would drive me to the bus station, and more often than not, they'd go in with me to get my ticket and point me in the proper direction for the bus stop.
I would always recommend learning as much of the local language as possible before you travel--even if there are many English speakers at your destination. It's polite.
Going somewhere else and expecting or demanding that they speak your language gives a terrible impression of Americans--and we have enough of that already, let's be real.
Even learning basic greetings and "Do you speak English?" in the local language is better than nothing, and I would argue that it's essential to establish good relationships.
In the best case scenario, you're speaking to someone who speaks great English, they appreciate your effort and take pity on your struggle, and they switch to English.
In the worst case scenario, you're speaking to someone who speaks zero English, and whatever phrases you've learned in their language represent the sum total of possible communication between you. Wouldn't you agree it's best to be armed with as much of the language as you can manage?
Most guidebooks have some key phrases in them--go ahead and copy them into your travel notebook so that if (when) you get tongue-tied or flustered, you can refer back to them.
Also, now I have T-Mobile, which lets me use my smartphone in almost every country--which would make things a million times easier.