Pedaling Over the Language Barrier

February 13, 2015

In my next life I'm coming back as a linguist. I will be fluent in a dozen languages. My command of these languages will be so complete, that I'll be confused as a local on every continent. Each night before falling asleep, I'll decide which language I'll dream in.

But in this life, I have come to terms with the fact that I am a language klutz. If I could externalize my language accuity as a dance, I'd be the nerdy guy whose legs and arms moved awkwardly, and only occasionally matched the beat of the music.

Don't believe me?

Just listen to this exchange from my travels in South Africa. I've mixed it with music to keep your attention. All I'm trying to do, is learn how to say "My name is Willie Weir" in Xhosa (one of the tribal languages). The man helping me is very patient.

My name is Willie Weir

Well. That was awkward.

If you dream of cycling the world, but are afraid because you don't speak other languages, use me as inspiration. Yes, you can have abysmal language skills, and still travel the world. Just get on your bike, plant a smile on your face, and do your best to communicate — use hand gestures, point to photos in a book, channel your best charades performance, and learn to laugh at yourself. Remember: You are a traveler on a bike. Without saying a word, you are already interesting and intriguing.

Learn as many words and phrases as you can, and improvise the rest. Your actions speak volumes, and it doesn't take a single word to be kind to others.

Now get on your bike, pedal over the language barrier, and have an adventure.


Photos by Willie Weir

SIGHTS AND SOUNDS is posted every other Friday. Willie Weir is a columnist for Adventure Cyclist magazine. His books, Travels with Willie and Spokesongs, will inspire you to hit the road, and might change the way you approach bicycle travel. He lives in Seattle with his wife Kat. You can read about their adventures at


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