He spoke to me but I didn’t have a clue what he said. I tried to figure out what this random man on the street was saying to me. All I caught him saying “…English?” with a questionable look on his face. With his furrowed eyebrows, his expression was implying that he was expecting an answer from me.

I smiled back awkwardly, probably like a dog who titled its head to the side. I tried to fit the puzzles as quickly as I can while he was standing and looking dumbfoundedly at me. I waved and use a local gesture, “no” as he looked at me as he walked away. Well, that was awkward.

But what did he just say?

While traveling to different countries, It is expected that there will be a language barrier. Learning some basic words in local language is always suggested to get through the journey. I mean, there are about 6,909 languages around the world (and I won’t be surprised if they are more) and none of us can be really proficient at every language.

But although there are 6,909 languages, English is glorified. A language where many people learn and a way to communicate with each other when visiting abroad. If a Latin traveler who knows English and Spanish and decide to visit India, that traveler would be most likely to feel hopeful that there are some Indians who would know English. Otherwise, that traveler would learn some basic Hindi or Bengali words.

It can be a struggle for many travelers when they don’t know local’s language or when local doesn’t know English. There are some situations that can be quite frustrating and some situations where can be easily get handled. It can be quite frustrating, most particularly when being in urgent or stressful situations. But there are some times when they will find someone who knows English or even just a little English.


But what if I say that I don’t face a language barrier?

No, I’m not a person who knows more than 8 languages (oh, how I wish though! I just love languages). It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be hoping to find someone who knows English at least. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn some basic words when traveling. I can relate in a way but a language barrier wasn’t the only challenge that I face.

Because what I face every day whilst traveling is a communication barrier.

If you didn’t know, I am Deaf. A Deaf traveler who often communicate with locals through body language, such as using hand gestures, or use Big app (like a Note app) to communicate with them.

“Do you not know English?” is the question I always get when I couldn’t understand local people or even other travelers at hostels or AirBnB.

But here is the thing: even if I go to Europe where a lot of people know English, it is still a challenge. Even if the person still knows a little English, it is still a challenge. The only way for me to have an effective communication is using hand gestures and typing or writing to communicate because I communicate visually, not auditory.


My eyes are my ears, and my voice comes through my hands.

Even though my eyes are my ears, Lip-reading isn’t always effective. The term lip-reading often perceives that it was an easy thing to do. However, lip-reading is not like reading a book. The human face is not a book where you can read clear texts. They mumble. They stutter. They turn their head away. They overexaggerate their lips. They chew gums. Too many words were mouthed similarly. Many words on their lips are mostly a blur.

I have to play fill-in-the-blank games all the time, looking for clues and try to fit the puzzle into the sentences. Sometimes that didn’t work out. I would only catch less than 50% of whatever the person is saying.

Like what Rachel Kolb said, “I am trying to learn something about sound when eyes are meant to hear.” Watch this powerful video that I personally face every day.

In a way to defeat a communication barrier while traveling, having a visual communication is it. By this, locals would need to be willing to type/write everything down or even just use gestures.

Employees, who seat sitting behind the glass in the ticketing booth, sometimes is even difficult when the glass is clear. The worse on their lips are blurred, and speaking on the microphone isn’t efficient. I waved to my hear and signed, implying that I am Deaf and gestures “pen writing” to encourage the employees to write down what they are saying. This is can be pretty stressful at times when the line is long, but the thing is: everyone else have an effective communication, why shouldn’t I?

One of the most profound moments I had while traveling is when I met two Hearing* Malaysians in Bali who own a restaurant and live there. Instead of insisting having an auditory communication, they wrote down about a little about themselves and wrote down where I should eat and visit in Malaysia, 4-5 pages worth!

This is one of the most humanizing experiences I’ve ever encountered as a Deaf traveler. I wrote down how thankful I was to them, not because they gave me an ultimate guide to Malaysia but because they treated me as a human being. And of course I don’t experience this humanizing experience with every local. Sometimes they just don’t know English, and the local and I can get by using hand gestures or visual images (such as showing an image or emoji of an pig and use a hand gesture “No”). Sometimes people just keep insisting an auditory communication, but their approaches sometimes be quite hostile, just like a horrible audist experience I had with Scoot airline in Singapore.

I’m not looking for pity when writing this post though. In fact, I’m quite proud being a Deaf person because it made me who I am today. I want be honest that traveling as a Deaf person isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. I want to rise awareness that the privilege that Hearings have comparing to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing travelers, because

Communication barrier is the ultimate challenge whilst traveling as a Deaf person, not a language barrier. Because my world, your world, is a Hearing one.

travel language barrier

Do you have any unique challenge as a traveler?

If so, how did you find your ways to manage it? Or did you learn something new from this post? Share your thoughts/feelings in the comment below! 

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience as now I see how a deaf traveler experience the world from her own point of view; I do think (and I hope) you had a lot of friendly encounters with the locals, even it could be tough sometimes. Luckily with a lot of help of the modern technologies, it won’t stop anyone travelling around the world when they wish ~ Happy traveling 🙂 @ knycx.journeying

  2. The language barrier is always there. In India even if you are traveling within the country you face it owing to the more than 100 plus languages spoken in the country. However, I understand that the issues take a wholly different perspective when it transforms into a communication barrier. We need more of people like those you met in Bali who communicated by writing down. In fact, I had a similar experience in Florence where a lady behind the counter of the information kiosk wrote down the information I needed, probably to avoid any sort of communication owing to the language barrier.

  3. I am awful with languages and often face language barriers where body language and “mime” become my method of communication. I work in a language school and meet students every month who have little or no English. I always admire their bravery. I admire yours too and I am grateful for people like the ones you met in Malaysia who took the time to communicate. Lucky for me my travel partner speaks 5 languages and seems to pick up new ones like I pick up colds lol

  4. Amazing story and personal reflections you shared here. I think the restaurant owners in Bali are so sweet. It just shows that they truly respect who you are and the needs you need. I really admire your courage and your determination to live your life to the fullest. I should learn more from you, from your greatest gift.

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