Surviving when you can’t speak the language


Leonard Lea Frazer

Introduction: Sometimes, when you’re traveling, learning a phrase or two in the local native tongue helps; sometimes it doesn’t. There will be times when you will be totally lost as far as communications go.

I believe that in rural parts of a foreign country, if you take the time to memorize and practice a few common greetings such as “good morning,” “thank you,” and “goodbye” it makes the local inhabitants feel relaxed, or even sympathetic to your plight. They see you are trying to communicate and may decide to either speak in English or find someone who can. After all, English is the Universal Language - or is it?

Mozambique:  While working my way around the world (1969 – 1972) on the Norwegian freighter MS Bris, I arrived in Mozambique, a country in southeast Africa. I found that the local language was Portuguese. Then, I discovered that most shop owners and business people spoke a few lines in English. I learned a few Portuguese words, improvised with my own made up sign language, and got by.

My favourite pastime in Mozambique was trading old clothes for African wood carvings. To do this I would barter in English and use some sign language. The street merchants were always native Africans and they appreciated the clothing. I found out years later that the Portuguese, who formed the government of that African colony, did not encourage the indigenous people to learn English. They wanted them to speak Portuguese and adapt completely to a Portuguese way of life, to speak the language, take the “siesta” and drink Portuguese wine. The Portuguese, who had been there for over 400 years, saw Mozambique more as a province of Portugal rather than a colony. In the process, the indigenous African languages were put on the back burner. 

Grill Party Special - East China Sea: Each time the “Bris” departed from the anchorage position in Singapore harbour a barbecue dinner was provided for all the crew to enjoy.  This traditional event included drinks at the bar, patio lanterns, music, and dancing.

When I first came in contact with the deck crew foreman, or boatswain (pronounced “bow-sun”) as they are referred to on a ship, I was confronted with a proud, elderly man - a Norwegian that refused to talk to me in English. As my Norsk was very limited I would get all my orders from the boatswain through Hansen, one of the able-bodied seamen on the ship. He would translate the messages into English.

Each morning, as we crossed the North Pacific Ocean, the deck crew would assemble on the poop deck where we would find out what kind of work we would be doing on that particular day. Hansen would say to me, “Deck-boy, the boatswain says that you can chip and scrape those pipes over there (pointing) and after coffee-break come and get some orange paint and a paintbrush. Then, paint over the area where you chipped.”

The rest of the crew saw the communication breakdown between the boatswain and me as something to laugh about. I did my best to follow orders.

Once a week the crew was invited to visit the Chief Steward below decks at his little canteen where we could buy toothpaste, cigarettes, and beer by the case among other supplies. When I mentioned that I wanted to learn some Norwegian phrases, the steward invited me up to his cabin.

Later, I explained that I wanted to be able to communicate with the boatswain. The steward suggested, “Kanskje ikke male vi i morgen” (“Perhaps we won’t be painting tomorrow.”) I practised and practised and practised that one line of Norwegian. I even practised it with an authentic Norwegian accent.

So, there we all were at the “Grill Party.” Everyone cooked their own chunk of meat or fish on a homemade barbecue and everyone bought drinks at the bar and we all sat together at one long table. An hour or so into the evening, which was highlighted by the crew taking turns dancing with the only four women (“hjelpepike” or help-girls) on the ship, and my guitar playing and singing with two other crew members, I decided I would approach the old boatswain who was standing over on the port side on the same deck level.

He was leaning with both arms on the top rail and had one foot resting on the bottom rail looking out into the night at the twinkling lights of houses on the shore somewhere in the East China Sea. I approached the boatswain and took up a position next to him with my foot on the same railing. I could sense that he was uneasy with my sudden appearance and before he had a chance to walk away back to the Grill Party I turned to him and said, “Kanskje ikke male vi i morgen.” The old guy suddenly came to life and responded in Norwegian. Then, he switched to English and we started a conversation; and he always addressed me in English after that.

12-String Taxi Ride - Japan: When it came to speaking Japanese, my fellow (Norwegian speaking) crewmembers were in the same boat.  The taxicabs in Japan are small. They can only carry four people. I discovered that bit of information on the day I bought my 12-string acoustic guitar while we were stopped at Naoetsu. I had already gone into town to check out the guitars and after I returned to the ship I made up my mind. Yes, I was going to buy a 12-string guitar.

When I returned to the music store I paid for the guitar, which was stored safely in the original cardboard factory box. I left the store carrying the box and was in the process of looking for a taxi when I ran into four crewmembers (two couples) from the Bris. They talked me into joining them for drinks at a fancy Japanese restaurant.

Inside we were seated at several tables and booths. Back home in Canada, and in Norway for that matter, we would have all sat at the same table. We were all wondering what was going to happen next when a truckload of Geisha-girls appeared out of nowhere. We had two girls assigned to each of us. They were dressed in traditional garb including a little pillow strapped to each of their backsides.

We ordered our beer and the Geisha-girl-waitresses proceeded to wash our hands with heated washcloths. We were all amazed at the overkill in service and were enjoying all the attention. When the menus arrived we tried to explain that we had just come in for drinks, not food. They finally got the message but made sure we were charged royally for all the extra service. We all pitched in to pay the bill. By the time we got outside the restaurant it was dark and raining.

Luckily, there were two taxis waiting right outside on the street so we all headed for the first cab. That's when I was informed, through sign language and pointing, that I would have to ride by myself in the second taxi. Yes, the taxis were too small to accommodate five people. The four Norwegians in the first taxi had drawn a picture of a boat and pointed. “Bow-tow, Bow-tow. We go to Bow-tow,” one of them had said to the driver. The driver seemed to understand. He would take us back to the boat; great. I could see it was going to be easy communicating with the Japanese. So, off we drove into the night.

I was in the back seat of my taxicab hanging on to my new 12-string guitar watching the taillights of the cab in front of us as we raced back to the dockyard. The journey seemed to be longer than I remembered. Then, I needed to urinate. I thought to myself,  “If the taxi driver could just pull over to the side of the road (we were driving in the countryside by now), I could have a pee and then we could continue our ride back to the ship.”

So, with those thoughts in mind, I leaned forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Say,” I said, “Do you think you could just pull over for a minute?” But the driver didn't understand a word. Then, I tried tapping his shoulder and pointing outside.  He kept nodding his head and saying something in Japanese. He seemed to be shrugging me off. Out of desperation, I finally said, “Toilet, toy - let. You know, toilet.”

Suddenly he understood. “A-so!” he cried. Then, he jammed on the brakes and pulled over to the side of the road and at the same time grabbed his microphone and called the cab in front of us who also pulled over. The automatic door opened and I stepped out in the dark and rain. I thought it best if I moved a little bit off the road. So, I stepped forward into the tall grass not realizing that the ground dropped off. Down a slope into a field I fell, scraping my hand on the way and not really caring. Once at the bottom I relieved myself. As I looked up I saw the headlights of the taxi projecting lights out and straight ahead and enabling me to see the silhouette of the short Japanese taxi driver darting back and forth waving his arms and calling out for me in the dark.

When I was finished I scrambled up to the road, much to the driver’s relief, and our convoy of two taxis continued on to the dockyard and back to our home on the Bris.

I made it back with my 12-string still in the box, safe and sound. The four Norwegians in the first cab never did find out why we suddenly stopped by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. They just couldn’t understand. Perhaps it was the language barrier.  That 12-string guitar sailed with me around the world three times and I still have it today, 45 years later.

Norwegian in Norway:  In more recent times (1993) while doing my own “Circle Tour” in Scandinavia, I learned how to say, “I’m working in Norway (or Sweden) as a Travel Writer.” I felt that if I could communicate this message my Swedish and Norwegian tourism contacts would be impressed and speak English and my Norwegian relatives would understand that I wasn’t there as a tourist or a relative with unlimited time to visit.  I would say, “Jeg arbeider I Norge som skribent.” Most of my relatives could speak English and some of them would take me around to visit other relations who could not, and have me say my famous line in Norwegian. Some of the older ones were thrilled to hear me speak in the mother tongue.  

Speaking Fijian: On my 1999 visit to the Fiji Islands I had rented a bicycle one day and was planning to cycle part way around the island of Ovalau to the village of Nukutocia. I was taught how to say, “I’m riding my bike to Levuka,” in Fijian. I would just substitute the word “Levuka” for whatever little village was up ahead on the road. Outside the village of Takau I came across a dozen young boys who were out collecting firewood.   They all gathered around me saying the usual Fijian greeting of “Bula,” which means “Hello.” I answered back with the usual response, “Bula Vinaka,” which is “Hello, thanks” or “Thanks for the hello.” I waited until the group of Fijian boys had me completely surrounded, then I bravely spoke my best Fijian, “Au vodo baisikeli ki Levuka.”  This one line brought the house down. They all howled with delight and repeated the line back to me and to each other.

Later that morning I made a video of one of those young Fijian boys from Takau, as he told the story (in Fijian) of how he and his father climbed the local “Devil’s Thumb” rock formation that towers over the village. Then, the same boy retold the story in his best English. I was amazed at his eagerness to speak in a foreign language. But then I remembered that English is the official language in Fiji with Fijian and Hindustani as the secondary languages. 

Conclusion:  A person could spend the time and take a language course. You know, “Amaze your friends and speak French to the waiter.” This newfound knowledge could help you. Yes, one can survive while travelling in a foreign land. Try speaking the local lingo and receive a universal smile in return.  


Friendly smiles of Fijian children.
Friendly smiles of Fijian children.
Norwegian freighter called MS Bris. That’s Norwegian for “breeze.”
Norwegian freighter called MS Bris. That’s Norwegian for “breeze.”


Travel writer Leonard, conversing with a giant troll in Norway.
Travel writer Leonard, conversing with a giant troll in Norway.