As I reflect on my time studying abroad in Graz, Austria with Pitt’s Comparative Healthcare program, the biggest challenge I faced was the language barrier. The official language in Austria is German, and I had no previous experience with the German language prior to the study abroad program. Although we did learn introductory phrases on our second day of class with our onsite Austrian coordinator, Julie, it was a challenge to communicate in some stores and restaurants, while other locals knew English. For example, for our free weekend we went to a rural, small village of Admont. The waiters at the restaurant did not speak any English and we didn’t know much German, so we pointed and used gestures as best as we could to communicate and order. This tended to be sufficient the majority of times, with some minor miscommunication like the wrong gelato flavor- it was still great though! Another challenge was when my friend and I were trying to purchase medication for our roommate who was sick one day. Unfortunately, the woman at the apothecary did not speak English, so this was the most challenging to explain to her what we needed, as they do not have all of the medications set out to read the labels/ Google Translate using the scanning option on my phone. We tried our best to communicate and also translated the box of medication she selected for us to ensure it was correct.
I learned that it is important to respect the culture and language of the country you are visiting. I tried my best to be polite by using key mannerisms in German, such as thank you, excuse me, and please, as I believe these phrases go a long way to express respect and kindness. I also learned that I should try to learn more phrases and feel more comfortable with the language before visiting a country with a language I have not learned before, as it would make me feel more involved with the culture and easier to navigate when abroad. Despite the language barrier, we had a great time and our version of communication was effective, and the Austrian locals were kind to us.
For other students who will experience a language barrier challenge abroad, I strongly recommend trying to learn and be comfortable with introductory phrases that are relevant for traveling. But also, keep in mind that it is part of the journey to make mistakes and learn in your new country. I am so grateful to have navigated Austria with my friends and learned so much about their culture and healthcare system in addition to overcoming a few obstacles along the way.