Traveling the globe can be the adventure of a lifetime, but sooner or later travelers are bound to run into language barriers. It isn't always feasible for you to learn the language of every country you visit, but there are strategies you can use to make sure you're understood.
Discover the best communication tips and tricks to make your overseas journeys more enjoyable when you're traveling without knowing the language of the locals.
Use Body Language
Body language is an important tool when you're trying to make yourself understood by someone who doesn't speak your language. For example, when you enter a restaurant and can't read the menu, look for pictures or a display case so you can point to the food you'd like to eat, or check out what the table next to you is having—if it looks good, you can order the same thing.
If you like, you can carry some basic symbols with you and point to them when you encounter someone as a way of asking a question. For example, showing a person a picture or symbol of a toilet and pointing to it would be a great way to get that person to direct you to the nearest bathroom.
Smiles, nods, shrugs, and gestures can also help you get your meaning across.
Beware of Using Gestures in Different Parts of the World
You should be aware that some gestures can have different meanings around the world, however. For example, The Huffington Post says the thumbs-up sign, which signifies approval in many countries, is considered to be rude and offensive in Latin America, West Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.
Even broad patterns of body language can carry different meanings depending on where you are. Eye contact, for example, gets different treatment in China versus the United States.
In the U.S., people often view direct eye contact as a sign that you're paying attention and respect to the person you're looking at. In China, however, people view the same level of eye contact as aggressive and challenging.
Physical touch is also treated differently depending on which country you're in. Some cultures, like those found in Latin America or in Arab nations, value person-to-person contact, and physical touch is a large part of interpersonal communication.
Other cultures, including Scandinavian and Japanese cultures, are much more "hands-off." A simple handshake, for example, may be taboo in some "non-contact" cultures whose people prefer to bow rather than shake hands.
Related to physical touch is the concept of proximity, or how close people get to one another in different social settings. Different countries have different unwritten rules about how close you get to someone when you speak to them or stand next to them on public transportation.
In Japan, for example, it is normal to crowd closely together on a train. However, it would be unusual to speak to someone from extremely close to them. The Japanese may view the latter as a sign of aggression.
So before you visit a country where you don't know the language, make an effort to learn about how they communicate without words. How and where you stand, the gestures and signs you make with your hands, and where you look can all have an impact on how you're perceived.
No matter where you are, try to avoid wild gestures and motions. They probably won't go over well and may make you seem like a threat.
Know How to Get Around
Invest in Maps or a GPS
You'll spend less time asking for directions if you have a good, current street map or a global positioning system (GPS). The simplified maps you might find at a hotel usually aren't adequate. When planning your trip, check in advance to make sure the countries you plan to visit have mapping data available for your GPS device.
When traveling in Europe, you typically have the choice of using a smartphone app or renting a GPS when you pay for your rental car, says Rick Steves' Europe travel website. Not sure how to get around once you've arrived? Download the FREE Ultimate Guide to International Travel - and check out its transportation tips!
Keep an Eye Out for Landmarks
Even if you have a map and a GPS service at hand, you'll want to keep an eye out for landmarks you pass so you'll have an idea of how to return to your accommodations if you get lost. There's always a chance you'll lose the map or the battery will die on your GPS.
The landmark method works especially well if you're walking. But even if you're driving, remembering that "I turned left at the purple building" and "I walked towards the tall church" can help you find your way home in a pinch.
Use a Translation App on Street Signs
Because they're printed so clearly in standardized fonts, street signs make excellent fodder for modern translation apps. If you keep track of the streets you're traveling on, a failure of your GPS or a loss of your map doesn't necessarily have to result in you losing your way.
Learning how to say a few basic words and phrases, such as "please," "thank you," and "hello" will help you make friends during your travels, shares Be My Travel Muse. The time you take to do this will pay off in terms of the cooperation you receive. It demonstrates your respect for the country you're visiting by showing that you're willing to make some effort to be understood in the local language.
You may also wish to learn the phrases for "I am sorry" and the local equivalent of "excuse me" or "pardon me."
Try to learn at least a rough approximation of the correct pronunciation of simple phrases. This is hard to do if you're learning your phrases from a phrasebook, so try and use an app that reads the phrases aloud to you. Knowing some basic pronunciation will make the lives of the people you're talking to a lot easier and the locals will appreciate it.
You'll also want to ensure you're speaking slowly and clearly. Your accent can make it difficult for the locals to understand you, and it won't help matters if your mouth is moving a mile a minute while you try to ask where the nearest bathroom is.
Finally, keep it simple! Don't try to say anything too complicated and you'll greatly reduce the risk of being misunderstood or offending someone unintentionally.
When you don't know the language, you can learn a great deal by observing others. If you're not sure how to behave in various situations, follow the examples set by the people around you.
Remember, you're bound to make some social mistakes, no matter how careful and observant you may be. The Abroad Guide suggests that if you unintentionally offend someone you should simply apologize and explain that you're new to the culture—most people will understand.
Have a Thick Skin
Remember not to be too quick to take offense to behaviors with which you may not be familiar. For example, Lonely Planet says that pushing in busy places isn't considered rude in Italy, even though it may be out of place in your home country.
Before your trip, do a quick Google search for "[destination] cultural quirks" or "common [destination] cultural practices." You should be able to find out relatively quickly, for example, that Bermudians say &"Good morning" and "Good afternoon" instead of "Hello," or that the Dutch tend to be exactly on time for appointments.
Above all, display an attitude of deference. Remember that you're visiting someone else's home and you should be willing to adjust yourself to the environment, not the other way around.
Learn as Much of the Foreign Language as You Can
There's no better time to learn a new language than when you're traveling internationally. You will be surprised by how much locals will appreciate and respond to your attempts to speak to them in their native language, whether you're already nearly fluent or you're a complete beginner!
Invest in the Right Resources
While you're still at home, check out your local bookstore for language learning resources. At the very least, invest in a physical dictionary and phrasebook, which can be very helpful. If you can't buy these books locally, consider ordering them online from a website like Amazon.
While you may be wondering why you need a physical copy in this digital age we live in, experience shows that cell phones and computers have a way of running out of battery right when we need them most.
Additionally, a hard copy will allow you to take your own notes, which can be invaluable when you're trying to learn new material. They are worth the extra weight.
Learn a Few Basic Phrases
If you're a complete beginner, try to learn at least a few phrases before you leave home. You can even bring that phrase book with you on the plane to study up just before you arrive. You'll want to learn how to greet someone, how to introduce yourself, and how to ask basic questions like "Where is the bathroom?" and "Can you speak slower?"
If you have dietary restrictions, you'll need to learn how to explain them to make sure you don't have any trouble once you arrive. Learn how to say "please" and "thank you." By mastering these few simple phrases, you'll set yourself up for success once you arrive.
We've reproduced below a couple of phrases that can come in handy in a foreign country. Learn these and, while you'll be far from fluent, you'll be better off than you'd be without them.
"My name is. . . Joe."
There is perhaps no better phrase to learn first than, "My name is..."
- Chinese (Simplified): "Wǒ de míngzì shì qiáo.”
- Spanish: "Me llamo Joe."
- Arabic: "Aismi ju."
- Hindi: "Mera naam jo hai."
- Portuguese: "Meu nome é Joe."
- French: "Mon nom est Joe."
- Italian: "Il mio nome è Joe."
"I need a doctor."
Unfortunately, travelers do suffer injury or illness on occasion. It's important to be able to communicate the need for medical assistance before a condition becomes unbearable. That's why it's important for international travelers to learn to say phrases like "I need a doctor."
- Chinese (Simplified): "Wǒ xūyào yīgè yīshēng."
- Spanish: "Necesito un "
- Arabic: "'Ahtaj 'iilaa tabibin."
- Hindi: "Mujhe doktar kee jaroorat hai."
- Portuguese: "Eu preciso de um doutor."
- French: "J'ai besoin d'un docteur."
- Italian: "Ho bisogno di un dottore."
"Where is the bathroom?"
This common phrase speaks for itself.
- Chinese (Simplified): "Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ?”
- Spanish: "¿Dónde está el baño?"
- Arabic: "'Ayn hu alhamaam?"
- Hindi: "Baatharoom kahaan hai?"
- Portuguese: "Onde fica o banheiro?"
- French: “Où se trouvent les toilettes?”
- Italian: “Dov'è il bagno?”
"Do you speak English?"
Even if the person you ask can't speak English, asking in their native language is more likely to lead to someone who does.
- Chinese (Simplified): "Nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma?"
- Spanish: "¿Habla usted Inglés?"
- Arabic: "Hal tatakalam allughat al'iinjaliziat?"
- Hindi: "Kya aap angrezee bolate hain?"
- Portuguese: "Você fala inglês?”
- French: “Parlez vous anglais?”
- Italian: “Lei parla inglese?”
"I am sorry."
Just like at home, mistakes abroad require an apology, which is perhaps no better expressed than by saying, "I am sorry." It's short, sweet, and effective.
- Chinese (Simplified): "Duìbùqǐ."
- Spanish: "Lo siento."
- Arabic: "'Ana 'usf."
- Hindi: "Mujhe kshama karen."
- Portuguese: "Sinto muito."
- French: “Je suis désolé.”
- Italian: “Mi dispiace.”
"Where is the airport?"
In some cases, the airport may be quite far from your accommodations. Learn this phrase in case you need help getting back to the airport when it's time to return home.
- Chinese (Simplified): “Jīchǎng zài nǎlǐ?”
- Spanish: “¿Donde esta el aeropuerto?”
- Arabic: “'Ayn hu almatar?”
- Hindi: "Havaee adda kahaan hai"
- Portuguese: “Onde é o aeroporto?”
- French: “Où est l'aéroport?”
- Italian: “Dov'è l'aereoporto?”
Consider Using a Translation App
Technology has come to the rescue of many international travelers, as a variety of smartphone apps have made it easy to translate foreign languages. Here are a few of the best translation apps you should download ahead of your trip:
Available For: Apple, Android
Cost to Download: Free
Google Translate can create written translations for words you type, speak, photograph, or write on your touch screen. Its versatility is hard to match.
Available For: Apple, Android
Cost to Download: Free
Papago is a translation app specializing in Asian languages. It includes several features designed to make a traveler feel more at home, including:
- Photo translation
- Voice translation
- Text translation
- Dictionary and phrasebook
Available For: Apple, Android, Windows Phone
Cost to Download: Free
This app translates typed and spoken phrases. It features an easy-to-understand design and allows you to save translations for later reference.
Available For: Apple, Android
Cost to Download: Free
TripLingo provides translations for almost any phrase, including formal, casual, and slang variations. It comes with instructional phrasebooks, audio lessons, and tips about local etiquette. A free version includes basic access to all features.
Keep in mind that, depending on your data roaming plan, using any of these translation apps on a cellular network could become prohibitively expensive very quickly. Double-check with your carrier to make sure you have a reasonable rate before diving into the apps.
Connect with Locals
The most valuable resources will be the locals you meet. Language exchange is guaranteed to happen in your day-to-day life, whether you're ordering at a restaurant or chatting with a new friend. These exchanges can be as informal or formal as you like — ideally, you'll have a little bit of both. Informal exchanges are beneficial for learning slang and street language, while more formal exchanges can help you learn grammar.
Some people are more comfortable setting up language exchanges online. You can use websites like Couchsurfing.com as well as Facebook groups that are destination specific. Scan these websites and check to see if there are any language exchange groups already established that you can join. Otherwise, put out a message of your own and see who gets back to you!
Chances are you won't have any trouble finding people who are interested in improving their English, since it's such a strategic business language (not to mention an important language for those looking to travel).
Of course, you can always pay to take an official language course, like Rosetta Stone or Fluenz, but don't underestimate the value of sitting down with a native speaker and learning this way as well.
Know what kind of learner you are and test out multiple approaches. You will be able to easily figure out what combination is the most helpful to you.
Buy a Book
Now that your language skills are surely improving, it's time to start reading more in the local language. If you feel confident, you can buy a full-fledged novel. If you're just beginning, you'll find it easier to start with something from the children's section. You may feel silly at first, but be honest with yourself about your fluency level. You have to start somewhere!
Go to the Movies
The great thing about learning a new language is that, more often than not, it's a lot of fun. Cinema can be an excellent way to improve your skills.
Don't hesitate to go out to the theaters. Just by following the story with the images, you'll be subconsciously picking up new vocabulary and learning a lot about the pronunciation of foreign words—even if you don't understand everything.
When you're at home or in a hotel, you can put on a film with subtitles. Watching a movie with subtitles exposes you to new words in their context, which can really help you integrate them into your own vocabulary.
If you can help it, try not to watch with English subtitles, since you're more likely to just end up reading along and not listening as closely to the dialogue in the original version.
Navigating Language Barriers in Airports
Airports can be particularly confusing places, even for people who speak the local language. For those who don't, they can be positively daunting. Luckily, most major airports across the world make allowances for the fact that they're dealing with an international cohort. Announcements are usually made in multiple languages, almost always including English, and posted signs are usually multilingual as well.
Those people who need additional assistance can always choose from one of the following options:
Find an Information Desk
All airports have information desks designed to provide assistance to travelers moving throughout the airport. The people who staff these desks are almost always conversant in English.
Use a Translation App
Airports, with their clear signage, are excellent places to use translation apps with photo translation capability. Any of the apps we listed in the above section should work.
Listen for Your Name
If you do happen to be late for your flight, it's common practice for airport officials to announce the names of any late or unarrived passengers in English (and other languages, depending on the country you're in). If you're late, listen for your name. You'll know you need to hurry if you hear it.
Ask a Stranger for Help
If all else fails, ask one of your fellow humans for help. Ask loudly and clearly, "Does anyone speak English?" Whoever responds clearly does and should be able to help you.
Traveling without knowing the language of the country you're visiting doesn't have to be a headache. In fact, it can be a disorientingly exciting experience. If you use body language, keep an eye on your surroundings, be nice to others, and learn as much of the local language as you reasonably can, you'll be amazed at how much fun you'll have abroad.
Now that you know how to visit a country without knowing the language, have a look at our Ultimate Guide to International Travel. It's packed with all sorts of helpful information that will make your life so much easier the next time you travel.