I've worked at a school where 98% of the students have come from NESB (non-English speaking backgrounds) and have taught students who have come to my classroom with no English. I've always wondered if what I was doing was effective, as I've never been in that position. I grew up in an English speaking household and have lived in the same country my entire life (well, up until May 2013).
Going on a trip around Europe and travelling independently (as in not with a tour group) put me in the position of a new arrival student. I was in a foreign country, not knowing the language and I couldn't understand what the signs were saying. The countries that really emphasised this were the ones with Cyrillic; Russia, Ukraine, Serbia and Macedonia. Not only was there a language barrier, but the way things were done was also different. Buying a bus ticket was done at a kiosk and then had to be validated on the bus. Back home, it was bought from the driver and that was it. Big grocery stores didn't really exist, only small ones with limited choice. The money values were very different. It was confusing seeing a box of biscuits for 128 when I was so used to seeing them for 3.
I found myself using strategies to get by. Sometimes I was lucky and there was an English translation, other times there was just the Cyrillic.
To try and make sense of the signs I would look for pictures or diagrams next to the words. It was a lot easier interpreting things when there was a picture. Another strategy was whenever I saw an important word translated in English, I would memorise it in Cyrillic so that when I saw it later I would know what it meant.
Communicating was interesting, sometimes I was lucky enough to get someone who knew English, other times I had to use a lot of hand gestures and awkwardly try and pronounce the word in their language. Usually I would mispronounce it, but they were able to make out what I was trying to say.
Basically I became the student trying to understand and communicate in a foreign language. At times it was very confusing and frustrating, but it was also exciting. Being put in the position of a student was an enriching experience for me, I feel it helped me better understand what it is like for them coming into a classroom where they do not understand the language.
It also helped reassure me that what I do to help accommodate them is helpful. I found myself relying on pictures, translations and words that I knew to help make sense of it all.
So if anyone tries to tell me that I wasted a year travelling around Europe, I can tell them that about my own learning adventure :)