Travel, Travel Stories

Speechless in Paris: Overcoming the Language Barrier

February 23, 2014

I’d love to say I stepped off the train from my meeting in Jarnac and ran into the loving arms of Paris with tears of joy streaming down my face, but that’s not exactly what happened. I was actually kinda scared. Not the kind of scared like when I got lost in the middle of the night in Trinidad, but just a little unsure of my next move because I couldn’t read or understand like…..anything around me. Not a sign, not a voice. Nothing.

On trips in the past, I’ve always been able to get by with my broken Spanglish, or if the country spoke another language, their signs, menus and other instructional materials also included an English translation.

But France? They’re not interested that English life. Not e’en a lil bit. Like straight up arms folded, bougie side eye on some “Oh you think I’m about to sound as silly as you do trying to speak English. What I look like, an American? Speak French you little pussy.”


So when I said goodbye to my English-speaking coworkers and set out to find my way in the Paris Montparnasse train station, I was paralyzed for a moment. Little things like finding the bathroom (which is not free apparently), exchanging dollars for Euros, and simply asking where things were was a challenge. I literally walked in circles between 3 different types of train ticket machines hoping one was an ATM, and gave up on getting a ticket from the subway kiosk because even in English I felt dyslexic trying to deciper the butchered translation.

Once I was finally ready to leave the station I called my Airbnb host to get directions. But have you ever tried to get directions from someone with a thick accent? She spoke English but I’m 157% sure that the words I was writing down were not the words coming out of her mouth. Even when I asked her to spell the word I was all like….


Thankfully, I have this crazy sense of direction so I was able to make it safely through the Metro stations, making educated guesses about where to transfer and what direction to go in, and arrived my flat in one piece.

All that to say, I learned a lesson yesterday. While it’s fun simply wander and explore a new culture, playing it by ear can only take you so far when the ears around you don’t understand the words you’re saying. A few years ago I took a random moped ride down the coast in Cozumel with a rough map, no GPS and no real plan for my ride. But when you can read signs and communicate with people it makes the spontaneity of your adventure more manageable.

When I leave my house today, I’ll have the Google Translate app on my phone, the travel guide my Mom sent me, the street map my host gave me and addresses for every place I plan to go. I’m sure I’ll wander off my “itinerary” for the day, because that’s really when the fun begins. But getting lost in a beautiful place is way more fun when you’re confident you can get back home.


Have you ever struggled bc of a language barrier while traveling? Ever gotten lost in a foreign country? How did you figure it all out? Share your experience!

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  • Reply Che March 20, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Love it! I had a very similar experience on my trip to Paris in 2012. Mind you, I had been studying the language for 2 months prior to the trip but the reality is much different. I was terrified and enjoyed every minute of it.

  • Reply Christina Haywood August 30, 2014 at 2:28 am

    Tracey! I loved reading this article and yes, this has happened to me before…in Switzerland! I flew into Zurich in the late afternoon on the tail end of a trip. My flight out of Zurich back to NYC was the next afternoon. Short trip, sounds pretty easy, right? Well, I was so wrong. I had no idea what the official language was(I thought it was Dutch/German but apparently it’s a mix of German, Italian, French, and Romansh). It was beyond difficult to read & follow the signs in the airport. Not to mention, I had absolutely NO IDEA the currency used in Switzerland was Francs and not Euros until I tried to use my Euros in the airport. Finding my way from the airport to my hotel was a complete nightmare. I had no idea how to work the train ticket machine and I ended up getting on a train that took me in the wrong direction. To make a long story short, it was definitely an obstacle I had to overcome primarily because of the language barrier. I promise on my next trip to Switzerland(when I go skiing in the Swiss Alps of course!), I will definitely be more prepared! XO

    • Reply Tracey August 30, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      Thanks Christina! Girl you underestimate the power of communication until you lose it! It’s pretty scary but definitely something we can overcome with the power of Google Translate lol.

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