Traveling should be an exciting adventure – a lack of knowledge of the local language shouldn’t fill you with dread.
You may not have time to understand the customs and speech of an entire country before you go, but following the tips below should be enough to get you through your visit.
Think Before You Try to Speak
Politeness generally transcends any language.
While feeling overwhelmed by a foreign language can be frustrating, treating others with respect and care will likely be more valuable than any app or guide book.
- Don’t get upset with someone if they don’t understand you. A server might struggle to register your broken request for a soda. A helpful stranger may also have a hard time getting an idea of what you’re asking to give directions. Even if you’re getting frustrated, think about how it feels to be on the other side of the encounter.
- Consider what you can do to get your point across and have fun with it. As Travel Made Simple shares, “Hand gestures and miming work well. When trying to order food, if you can’t tell what kind of meat something is, moo like a cow, flap your arms like a chicken, swim like a fish.” Yes, you might look ridiculous in this process, but it also makes you much more likely to be understood.
- Follow the customs. For people in several Balkan countries shaking your head means “yes” and nodding it means “no.” In Russia, smiling at strangers is not the norm and won’t be the friendly sign you mean it to be.
Know Before You Go
Planning ahead is usually a smart idea when it comes to traveling, and it’s doubly important to do so with a language barrier.
- Learn basic words and phrases, especially those which will make common courtesy a little easier. “Thank you,” “please,” “excuse me” and “sorry” are great places to start. Even those simple terms will save you time and worry so you don’t have to stop and look them up when you want to thank a helpful guide or apologize for bumping into someone at a shopping center. Simple phrases to do with English, directions and other similar needs could also be useful.
- Consider navigation needs before you travel. Think carefully about whether the GPS on your phone will suffice or if you need a separate device. If you’re expecting a weak internet connection or not traveling with a guide, other options are needed. A physical map can be a good idea, plus it doesn’t take up a lot of space.
- Do your research on your destination. Talk to any friends or family who have been there and look up plenty of details about places you want to visit. This can tell you about available English tours, the best locations for foreigners and more.
Try to Translate
Of course, all the preparation and politeness in the world may not be enough to get you from one place to another. Translations can come in many forms.
- Apps are a modern game-changer for people who don’t speak the same language. Every resource will have its quirks so you shouldn’t rely on any for precise translations. Although, even with some technological hiccups, apps and help from the internet can be invaluable. In a pinch, those resources can give you a fast way to at least understand the gist of the situation. You can input what you want to say, translate a sign or work on your pronunciation before you go to bed.
- Find people who want to help. A hotel concierge, for example, is a fountain of knowledge and their job is to assist guests. Trip Advisor also suggests looking for locals who’d like the opportunity to practice their English, such as students at a university.
- Carry a pen and paper. Writing or drawing may seem old-fashioned, but it’s a strong method of communication when miming or translator apps aren’t working. You can write numbers, draw pictures of what you need, make up a map, and more. The tools can also be easily given to someone else – rather than handing over your phone all the time, you can give your taxi driver the information that a newfound friend gave you by tearing off a sheet of paper.
Bonne chance (good luck)!
Written for Passport Health by Katherine Meikle. Katherine is a freelance writer and proud first-generation British-American living in Florida, where she was born and raised. She has a passion for travel and a love of writing, which go hand-in-hand.