Tips for Traveling When You Don’t Speak the Language

Travelling to a country where you don’t speak the language? When you travel to a foreign country, where the official language is something other than English, you could experience a language barrier. The size of the language barrier will depend on where you’re travelling to. You might find that many people speak English or it might feel like no one speaks English.

Don’t let language barriers stop you from getting out to explore the world!

Use Your Body Language  

Sometimes you can say a lot without saying anything. If you don’t speak the language of the country you are visiting, use body language to communicate. If you’re at a restaurant or store and want something, you don’t need to know how to ask for it. Just point to it and the locals will understand. Nods, shoulder shrugs, smiles, and hand gestures are all ways to communicate. Just be careful! Make sure you research the customs for the country you’re visiting before you travel. Certain gestures mean different things in different countries. You don’t want to accidentally offend someone with inappropriate gestures. Do some research before you go on your trip. Find out what different gestures mean in the countries you will be visiting.

This article from the Huffington Post explains the interpretation of different gestures in different cultures. Gestures to Avoid in Cross-Culture Business.

Bring Pictures of Where You’re Planning on Going

Get directions to places even if don’t speak the language. Point to a map or to a picture of a location to communicate where you are trying to get to. You can print off pictures of certain things that you think you might need to ask about. If you have a guide book you can use those pictures to point to where you want to go. Not only can pictures of places be useful but so can pictures of common everyday things you might need. For example, a hospital, a taxi, or a washroom. By pointing to pictures you communicate to people where you want to go.

Use Maps on and off Your Smart Phone

Reading signs and directions that have little to no English can also be a challenge.  Download maps and directions ahead of time on your smart-phone so that you can access them offline. You can also print off maps and directions in case your phone dies. If you are taking public transport, write down the number of stops till your destination. This way you can count stops and know where to get off even if you don’t understand the language.

GPSmyCity is a great resource to download travel guides and maps that you can then use offline. GPSmyCity Travel Article Apps.

Take Advantage of Translators

Find a translation app that you can download and then use while offline. Even if the translations are not 100% correct it’s still going to be better than nothing. You can also bring a phrasebook with you and highlight certain words and phrases that you think you will need to use a lot. If you can’t pronounce them then you can point to the highlighted word or phrase. Use these translation tools for simple words and phrases to increase the chance of a better and more accurate translation.

Bring the Business Card of Your Accommodation

When I was in Ho Chi Minh I couldn’t remember the name of my hostel, or the street it was on, to save my life. I knew I would get lost so I kept a business card from the hostel with me whenever I went out. This turned out to be very helpful. If I got confused about getting back to the hostel I could just show the business card to someone. They would point me in the right direction.

Carry a Pen and Paper

If you can’t explain yourself through speech or body language try communicating by drawing. Draw simple pictures explaining what you want to say. The person you are communicating with can also use the pen and paper to draw replies.

Take Pictures of Landmarks and Street Signs

Chances are that you are not going to remember the name of a sign written in another language or alphabet. Taking pictures of signs will allow you to show people the pictures. People can then point you in the right direction when you get lost. You can also take pictures of landmarks that you pass that you can look at if you get lost. If there’s a landmark or tall building close to your accommodation, take a picture of it. If you get lost, you might be able to see that landmark even if you can’t see your accommodations. Use your pictures as a bread crumb trail to re-trace your steps.

Learn a Few Simple Phrases

You don’t have to learn a foreign language if you don’t speak the language of the place you are visiting. However, it doesn’t hurt to know a few words and phrases. Before going to a foreign country, learn a few useful and basic words. Even just knowing how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ can be helpful. Surprise people by speaking a word in their language. They will be happy to hear that you are making an effort. This often results in people being more friendly and willing to help you out.

Tips for Traveling When You Don’t Speak the Language

Countries and major cities that get a lot of tourists are often English friendly. Smaller towns and countries, that are less popular with tourists, are often less English friendly. While the idea of being somewhere that you can’t easily communicate can seem overwhelming, don’t let it stop you! It might take a little longer to get where you’re going, but it’s all part of the adventure. Getting off the beaten path can be a great thing.

Happy travels!

Alannah McEwan


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