Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve done a lot of travelling in Africa, the Middle East, and all around Europe. Needless to say, this necessitated navigating my way through language barriers.
One of my personal habits when I was travelling was to begin by learning how to say one phrase:
‘I don’t speak (insert language).’
Over the years I learned how to say it in French, Polish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Arabic, Hebrew, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, German, Spanish, and Catalan.
Even in places where everyone assured me that no one would speak English with me (like France), I found that starting a conversation with, say, a shopkeeper or taxi driver with that phrase in the their language was a lot better than simply powering ahead in English.
Beyond that simple beginning, it was then a matter of daily adding to your vocabulary through interaction with the locals. I took to keeping a small notebook with me and writing down new vocabulary and phrases as they came up.
‘How do you say, “How much is this”?’
‘How do you say “Thank you”?’
‘What’s your word for “towel”?’
‘Do I use the same word if I’m speaking to a man or a woman?’
At bottom, you can always safely assume that there is a corresponding word or concept in the local language for the word or concept in yours; with a little bit of effort and interaction, you’ll figure out what it is.
I think the same goes for the broader task of approaching another culture or religion. As a theologian with experience working in the field of post-conflict reconciliation, I’ve been particularly interested for some time in the relationship between Christianity and Islam.