As an English native speaker, I have the tremendous privilege of being able to speak my mother tongue language in many countries across the globe. However, I have been to countries where English isn’t widely spoken, along with places where no one speaks or understands English. It can feel awkward when you don’t understand what someone is saying or frustrating when you can’t ask for what you need. However, over time this has become one of my favourite things about travelling. I relish the challenge of being out of my comfort zone, feeling slightly lost and adrift. Whether you are embarking on your first overseas trip soon or are a seasoned traveller, here are some easy, practical strategies to deal with language barriers abroad.
- Download specific languages offline. Fortunately, we live in a digital age where we can often use technology to handle communication issues. Downloading language apps like Google Translate, iTranslate or Voice Translator offline means you can get immediate, accurate translations without needing data or Wi-Fi. These apps work best with individual words and short phrases, rather than long blocks of text. I normally use Google Translate, which has been a lifesaver, especially in rural Thailand, Colombia, and Vietnam where my boyfriend and I met many people who didn’t speak any English.
- Try to learn some basic phrases. Taking the time to practise and memorise some polite greetings and key words can really help. Firstly, it makes a good impression with locals, who appreciate the effort, and secondly it makes simple interactions like shopping, ordering in restaurants and paying bills so much easier. Useful phrases include please, thank you, I would like, I’m excuse me, sorry I don’t speak _____, my name is _____, can I have the bill please? How much is this? Where is/are…? Knowing how to say numbers is very useful – 1-20, 50 and 100 is a good place to start. Two popular language apps you should check out include Duolingo (there’s a free or paid version) or Babbel (paid version only).
- Write down essential phrases in advance. If you have a medical condition, allergies, or specific dietary requirements, have this information clearly written and translated somewhere you can easily access it (e.g. on your phone or in your guidebook). You can use these notes to communicate with restaurant staff and food vendors and avoid potentially dangerous situations.
- Be mindful of non-verbal communication. Your body language, facial expressions and hand gestures convey far more than the words you use. Non-verbal communication varies widely from culture to culture, so a little homework goes a long way. In some countries, smiling at strangers is seen as friendly and welcoming, whereas it’s seen as strange or unnatural in some places. In some countries a thumb up gesture signals ‘OK’ but it’s very offensive and vulgar in others. Luckily there are some universal hand gestures (like counting numbers and signalling ‘left’ and ‘right’) which have helped me out a dozen times.
- Get creative. If you don’t know the words, show images of what you want or need, write numbers, draw maps or use emojis and pictures to express yourself. It may end up resembling a game of Pictionary, but you should be able to get your point across.
- Use the Google Translate camera app to translate menus and signs in real-time. This is such a cool feature that you might not know about. If you open the Google Translate app, click ‘camera’ and use ‘instant’, your phone camera immediately translates whatever is in front of it into the language of your choice (remember to download the languages you need offline)
- Ask, don’t assume. Always, ALWAYS ask someone “Do you speak English?”, preferably in the local language. You will be surprised how much more willing people are to help you if you take this approach, rather than assuming someone does – or does not – understand you.
- Speak slowly and clearly. When you experience a language barrier, use basic simple vocabulary to avoid misunderstandings. When we communicate with other native speakers, we often talk rapidly, don’t pronounce words fully and use slang and idiomatic expressions that foreigners might not know.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. It is easy to feel confused and frustrated when you don’t think someone understands you or vice versa. Patience is a big part of overcoming language barriers. Try your best, be kind to yourself and remember that everyone makes mistakes when practising a foreign language (trust me on this, I’m an English teacher!).
- Look for similarities with other languages you may know. Before arriving at your destination, research which languages are spoken there (there’s often an official language and several unofficial ones). Maybe there are some common links with other languages you know or have studied. Although my secondary school French is dead and buried somewhere in the vast caverns of my mind, knowing Italy really helped when I was in Colombia, fumbling around in broken Spanish. You might be surprised how many words you remember from your school days, even if you weren’t paying much attention back then!
- Make sure your phone battery doesn’t fail you. I travel with a compact power bank to recharge my phone and other devices while on-the-go. Consider buying a local SIM card so you can use data, instead of relying on Wi-Fi. If you’re travelling somewhere with patchy – or non-existent – Wi-Fi, bring a physical phrase book or pocket dictionary with you.
- Prepare what you want to say in advance. If there is a specific situation that is scaring you (for example, getting from the airport to your accommodation, buying tickets for public transport, or withdrawing cash from a bank), write down a few key points to give yourself a confidence boost. Store all the words and phrases you may need to use in your phone’s notes so you can quickly jog your memory when needed.
- Carry business cards from your accommodation. This is incredibly helpful if you get lost or struggle to read or pronounce the local language. In China, my family and I collected business cards for the different hotels we stayed at, so we could show taxi drivers where we were staying (after trying and failing to pronounce the names in Mandarin!).
- Join an organised tour with a bilingual guide or interpreter. My parents often travelled in small or private tour groups and had fantastic adventures, without having to worry about translations and misunderstandings. They used local tour guides to help them navigate, assist with organisational and logistical challenges and translate when necessary.
I hope this blog post has given you some practical ideas on how to overcome language barriers when travelling abroad. There is something so human and humbling about realising that you don’t share a common language with someone, but you can communicate without words, with eye contact and appropriate gestures. Even when locals do speak English, they always appreciate travellers who take the time to learn about their language, culture, and customs. An open mind, a few pleasantries and a warm smile go a long, long way.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow