Do you have a fear of foreign languages? You can take our quiz here.
Here’s a real-life example of how we overcame this problem in a small town in Sicily.
We turned a corner on the road running along the ridge line of the mountains in Messina and there was Anna, our Air BnB host, waiting by the road in front of her villa. The GPS on our phone had led us here but only after several misdirections. She waved for us to pull in through the front gate.
“Buongiorno Joe, Elaina!”
Their villa overlooked the coastal town of Mellazo and the spectacular northern coast of Sicily. We parked our car and Anna invited us in. Our First Anxious Thoughts were: will she be hard to talk to? What if she doesn’t speak English?
Step One: Stay focused on the beautiful scenery and smile as a way of setting the stage for a positive interaction. Sometimes when we’re nervous, it affects our facial expressions and we may look angry because our eyebrows are knitted together, or we might squint reflexively. It’s too much to think about so a smile is a quick way to correct everything on your face at once.
We smile and extend a warm handshake for our first contact. When meeting new people, especially in Europe, it helps if you can keep your elbow loose so you can shift from a handshake to a quick backward release of the arm into a European hug.
It turns out, Anna speaks some English and lot’s of Spanish. She was eager to help us feel at home and she asked if we’d like some coffee or something to drink. We accepted her kind offer as a way of breaking the ice because we weren’t very hungry–nerves probably. Soon, we were sitting on her sofa drinking espressos and nibbling on a fresh, homemade desert of caramelized apricots and sugar.
Petri, her husband came in from working in the garden to meet us.
Step two: Act as if you expect a positive interaction so that your body language continues to speak for you.
and we all sat and talked. Anna and Elaine spoke both Spanish and English so they did the translating for Petri and I. Anna explained that Petri spends most of his time working in their garden. He seemed eager to show us their home and we took a tour of their villa. Would I fare as well without Elaine there to translate?
As had happened earlier with Antonio and the motorcycle, we found we could easily communicate without our spouse’s help as soon as the conversation led to something technical such as medicine and engineering. Petri was proud of the upgrades to his home. He’d been staying quite busy since his semi-retirement as a hematologist. Showing interest helped make up for some of the words I didn’t understand.
He led me up a spiral staircase to the roof of their house and showed me a solar hot water heating system and a large array of solar electric panels that actually feed excess power back into the local grid. He’d also designed and built an automated irrigation system that distributes water that’s collected from the roof to the garden. His garden seemed to be his proudest accomplishment. Flowers were blooming everywhere and it seemed like every tree had some type of fruit hanging from it. It was a nice sized garden, taking up maybe 100 feet by 100 feet of their hillside lot and it had obviously taken years to reach the full maturity spread out before us. I thought to myself, “what a wonderful way to spend your latter years, tending to your small garden overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
But, this was not where Elaine and I were staying for the next few days. Anna and Petri had a small 2-room farmhouse somewhere down in the fertile valley lying below us and I was anxious to go take a look.
Ten minutes later we all pulled into the driveway of their little farmhouse. Anna explained that the small brick structure had originally been a stable for farm animals. They’d converted it to a home a number of years ago. The bottom floor was a one room kitchen/dining area. It had all the amenities; stove, fridge, dining table and couch. The walls were solid brick with small little alcoves built in to house decorative knick-knacks or useful implements such as silverware and coffee cups. A narrow spiral staircase led us up to the large bedroom and bathroom. As we’d seen before in some European bathrooms, the shower isn’t in a separate enclosed area, it’s just built into the wall and the entire bathroom floor drains into a central drain. It certainly gives you plenty of room to move around. What we hadn’t seen before was a toilet sitting immediately adjacent to the shower. The ever-efficient engineer in me immediately wondered, ‘Gee, I wonder what it would feel like to be sitting on the toilet while taking a shower?’
“Hey, Elaine, no one ever has to clean the toilet with this arrangement!”
Anna then handed us a small gift, it was a translucent green bar of soap, “Petri made this from olive oil.” I was surprised, I didn’t know you even could make soap out of olive oil!
Step Three: Shift the focus from worry to curiosity about the place your visiting and the people your speaking with.
When we’d arrived at the farmhouse, Petri stepped out back while Anna took us inside to show us around. Now that I’d seen the house I wandered out back to see what Petri was up to.
Step 3. Use all your senses besides hearing words.
I was shocked. The garden at Petri’s villa, the one I’d thought was his “retirement project”…that was just for show. I walked into the real garden; several acres of lush, tropical greenness that belonged in some botanical garden somewhere. I found Petri bent over, weeding a small batch of cherry tomatoes right at the entrance to this garden of Eden. He saw me approach and he saw the look of amazement in my eyes. He immediately signaled, “Follow me.” We spent the next hour walking through his different plots. There were small groves of oranges, apples, avocados, lemons, limes and grapefruit. He identified each one in Italian and I practiced the words as well as telling him the English translation. There was row after row of potatoes, onions, carrots, different varieties of tomatoes, green peppers, small little hot red peppers that he warned me in his limited English, “Be very careful with those!” There were bananas, squash, lettuce, arrugala and some fruits that I couldn’t even identify. We walked along a long stone wall and he stopped several times; pulling the leaves from small bushes that looked like a weeds. He’d rub them in his hands and then bring them to my nose; oregano, thyme, fennel, mint, basil, lemon grass. It just didn’t end! I had a ball just trying to identify each aroma; telling him the name in English and he responding with the Italian word.
Anna and Elaine eventually came looking for us and she explained how this was their love–their new life beyond the world of medicine, patients and disease. They spent most of their free time down here just tending to their garden. She also said this was all for us; we could pick as much as we wanted of whatever we wanted. My mind immediately started running whole-food recipes through my head.
Step Four: Remember your tongue can be used for more than speaking.
“I wonder how many ingredients I can squeeze into one meal!”
Anna translated my comment to Petri.
Petri led me over to a brick barbecue he’d just built on the back patio. It hadn’t even been used yet.
Anna said, “Petri wants you to try it out, see if it works, use the apple wood over there in the woodpile.”
I did a day later and it worked! I got a fire going and grilled green peppers, red peppers, onions, squash, some other kind of gourd (have no idea what it was), tomatoes sliced in half along with some fresh sausage we picked up from the butcher shop. I basted them all with olive oil and sprinkled them with any kind of herb I could identify and a couple I couldn’t (but they smelled good). Elaine picked a bunch of what looked like oranges but tasted like lemons. She found an old fashion squeezer and made fresh lemonade. Instead of eating at the table; we grabbed some fresh rustica Italian bread and pulled two chairs up to the grill. We sat and cooked and ate right from the hot grill, surrounded by the garden of Eden.
Other Tips for overcoming the fear of a foreign language:
1. Remember that communication is mostly nonverbal and as long as you stay friendly and keep trying, you’ll learn something.
2. Practice while you’re still at home. Here are some sites where you will find people who want to practice with you.
3. If you have access to wifi, use translation apps like:
4. There are so many foreign language dictionaries out there we won’t add any here, but remember which ever you choose, make sure you get one that works without wifi. Otherwise, you’ll start trying to translate a menu item and find nothing comes up.
5. Finally, there’s nothing like the real thing. Traveling to new places where others speak a different language will help desensitize you to the fear. If you push your boundaries in this way, you may just find yourself in your very own garden of Eden–delighting in all of your senses.