Going to a country that doesn’t speak your native language can be very intimidating. You might worry about how to get around or what to do in an emergency situation when you can’t understand anyone or explain the problem to the locals.
But with the right preparation, an open mind, and some creativity you can minimize much of the awkwardness and find yourself having a good time.
Many people in the world are bilingual
In many countries it’s common to rub shoulders with people who speak other languages due to the proximity of other nations or the popularity of tourism in the area. Places like Europe have so many people traveling there that its very common for locals to understand a few languages.
English is widely considered the lingua franca of the world and learning this language is useful wherever you go. Many people in different countries learn English to tap into lucrative US markets for business and it’s common to travel to the US or Britain to obtain a higher education. Much of the world’s entertainment derives from US filmmakers, musicians, authors and artists so English is prevalent in many countries.
Apart from English other languages that might be useful for their commonality are Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian and Arabic. These languages are so common that they’re the official languages of the United Nations. An understanding of any of these could be very useful given so many people speak them. Chinese alone is spoken by 1.2 billion people, almost a sixth of the entire global population!
Worst case scenario there’s probably another traveler or expatriate that has a better grasp of the language or the area and can help you out. My wife and I were struggling to find a subway in Greece and a wonderful British woman was able to point us in the right direction.
Use Symbols and Pictures
Having symbols or pictures to point to can be a great way to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. Restaurants and fast food places make this easy by providing their own pictures in the menus, but you can pull things up on your phone to show others or I’ve seen people make their own charts full of symbols and pictures they can use whenever they need something.
Learn Basic Words and Phrases
Most people are a little intimidated to try and speak another’s language. Movies and tv shows often portray ignorant tourists saying something incredibly offensive in other languages when trying to communicate, but nn reality, this is fairly rare and most people appreciate when travelers attempt to speak their language. It’s often more frustrating for people to communicate with someone who has no patience or interest in learning anything about the language, than to deal with a traveler who has poor pronunciation.
Take some time before your trip to identify key words you’ll need, such as bathroom, water, embassy, police, etc. and learn to speak them in the language of the country you’re traveling to. If you are planning on a longer trip or have the extra time beforehand, try to learn simple phrases. While knowing the word for bathroom will get you what you need, it’s better to be able to say ‘where is the bathroom’ than simply repeating the word ‘bathroom’ over and over again until someone understands you.
There are numerous apps that are good for translation purposes, most people prefer iTranslate for Apple devices and Google Translate for Androids. Both apps allow you to input a sentence in one language and translate it to practically any other language. There’s even a recording feature that will allow you to either record your own voice or that of the person trying to speak with you and it will translate it into text or audio.
Both apps are fairly accurate in many languages and can be great tools for learning or communicating.
I would strongly recommend using these as a last resort when traveling. For many cultures it’s rude to shove a phone in someone’s face to record their words or have the phone speak to them. Many people, especially older generations, perceive it as snobbish when someone won’t attempt to learn the language and expect others to speak theirs or degrading when someone would rather you speak to the phone than to them.
It’s tempting to lean on this kind of technology because you’re afraid of sounding foolish in a different language or simply don’t want to be bothered to take the time to learn. But making a sincere effort to communicate in a person’s native tongue is a great way to have a cultural experience that will make your trip more meaningful. You might be surprised to discover you have a knack for a particular language.
Keeping the above advice in mind and utilizing some creativity you should be fine wherever you travel. My wife and I have been to many countries where we knew absolutely nothing about the language and were just fine.
Author: Benjamin Baker
After serving abroad in a religious capacity for two years Ben has felt the pull to travel and explore ever since. This desire was further fueled by his wife Maddie and the two have traveled to many places over the last few years. Ben’s hope is that by sharing his knowledge and experiences obtained while traveling that others can improve their lives and the lives of others through travel. Check out additional articles written by Benjamin.