What to Do When You Don’t Know The Language
One of the most exciting parts of leaving your home country is being immersed in another culture. When you’re abroad you get to experience a community’s unique customs and ways of life. At the same time, adapting to a new culture can be overwhelming. It’s even further complicated when your visit comes with a new language that you don’t speak.
Traveling to places where English isn’t spoken can present communication challenges. But communicating isn’t impossible! And, it shouldn’t keep you from visiting places where the locals don’t speak English. I have fond memories from the comical dance of communicating across language barriers. It pushes you to get creative and be more open minded about how to understand and be understood.
The first thing to know is that you may run into more English speakers than you expect. English is the predominant language of tourism. Destinations that expect international visitors often have English speakers at the touristic sites. People in hospitality at hotels, landmarks and restaurants are likely to speak English.
Away from tourist areas, if you need to find someone who speaks English look for someone younger. Learning English as a second language has grown more popular with recent generations. And please remember, if you’re trying to communicate with someone who isn’t fluent in English, speak slowly and clearly NOT louder. And, when possible, use simple vocabulary and sentence structure.
But, you’re not always going to run into an English speaker when you need one. There’s also many ways you can bridge the language barrier. Here’s 8 tips on how to travel to places that don’t speak English and have an amazing time in process.
1. Learn the basics
People are much friendlier if you at least attempt to communicate in their language. You don’t have to try to master the language either. Focus on learning how to say simple things like hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you and excuse me. Other helpful phrases to learn are “Where is the toilet?,” “Do you speak English?,” “My name is…,” and “How much does this cost?”
Before I went to France for the first time, lots of people warned me that French people are rude and arrogant. After spending a day walking around the city with a friend I realized that most of that statement is untrue. French people are some of the most gracious people I’ve ever encountered. And, they appreciate those who realize that in France they speak French. So even if your French is atrocious (like mine) give it a go. They will often kindly rescue you and speak English in return.
2. Use hand gestures
Body language is almost universal, and comes in very handy when words have to be put on ice. For instance, pointing can often be more useful than speaking. It’s the Rosetta Stone of nonverbal communication. You’ll get very good at charades when you need to communicate in a place where people don’t speak your language. So feel free to pantomime, make sounds and don’t worry about looking silly, because you’ll get your point across!
I’ve ordered from a menu by making animal sounds to figure out what was in the dish, and it worked like a charm. You can point to what you need, use your fingers to show numbers or communicate directions.
Just be sure to look up the meaning of common gestures to make sure you won’t make a cultural faux pas by throwing up the the sign for a-ok (yes, in Brazil that means something entirely different!).
3. Carry around a notepad
If you have trouble pronouncing local names, try writing the names down in the local language. When local people offer me recommendations I always have THEM write or type the names for me. This makes it much easier to give the name to a driver or look up information later.
This also makes it easier if you need to ask for help while navigating. Instead of mispronouncing a name you can show it to someone and they will be able to direct you. The notepad is also good if you need someone to draw an impromptu map.
4. Use numbers
If you’re in a place that doesn’t speak English, skip the words and rely on the numbers. Numbers are the most ubiquitous language because math exists everywhere. Also, most countries use Indo-Arabic numerals (i.e., 1, 2, 3), so it’s pretty universal. If you’re trying to shop or negotiate a price for something, you can use a calculator or a sheet of paper to ask for the price. This way you can still haggle anywhere in the world.
5. Bring or make a friend who does speak the language
A great shortcut to getting around when you don’t speak the language is to find someone who does! There’s a few ways to find a language buddy:
Traveling with someone who speaks the language is an invaluable asset. Plus, if they’re local you’ll get an insider’s look at your destination and see things you’d never find in a guide book.
6. Carry a phrase book or use an app to learn as you go
Before you leave grab a pocket language guide or download a language app. You can buy a book, or better yet, borrow one from your library. Also, apps like Nemo and Duolingo can help you learn pronunciation and basic phrases. If you won’t have internet at your destination, make sure to find an app you can use offline so you aren’t left high and dry.
7. Take advantage of your smartphone
Traveling with a smartphone can make getting by without English much easier. I always wonder, how did people travel before smartphones and GPS?? Google Translate is one of the most powerful and indispensable translation apps. You use it in a variety of ways. From typing in phrases to translating spoken audio or an image of the written words. One of my favorite features is the ability to hold your phone camera over words and see them transform into English on the screen. It’s like watching something out of Harry Potter!
8. Smile & take it slow
This is one of the pieces of advice that will help you the most. Courtesy and a smile helps bring out the best in the people who are there to help you, even if you have a language barrier. Everyone has dealt with communication problems in one way or another. No matter who you’re talking to you can feel at ease knowing they’ve been in your shoes before as well.
Don’t think that you have to know everything or speak the language to make friends. Smiles are international. You may mess up or encounter a situation where you don’t know what to say or do something you shouldn’t. That’s okay, I’ve done it more times that I can count. Learn to laugh it off and most of all have fun. That’s why you’re there!
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I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.