Fitting in when traveling where you don’t speak the language

Travel Essentials

Lots of people give up fulfilling their travel dreams because they don’t speak the language of their destinations.

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Overcoming language barriers while traveling

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to experience beautiful cities? Do you dream of traveling? Lots of people do, but they don’t end up fulfilling these dreams. Why? Often, it’s not the distance that hinders them; it’s the fear of not being understood when they get there.

But the language barrier doesn’t have to be a huge barrier. Below, we explore some ideas that offer invaluable help.

First, assess your need

If you’re inquisitive, willing to learn new things, and open to adventure, you already have most of the tools you need for a great trip. But chances are you don’t have months to learn a new language. That’s fine. There are shortcuts you can take to work around the language gap. But first, an important question: is language really a problem?

Maybe not. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by over 1.2 billion people; it’s often quoted as the world’s most common language. And yes, it may be the world’s most common first language, but Chinese children learn English, too. In fact, around the globe, English is almost everybody’s “second” language.

Therefore, chances are good that if you visit major cities around the world, you’ll find people who speak English. This is particularly true in hotels — and in a lot of cases, a hotel will be your first point of contact. At the very least, it’s nice to know there’s someone you can bring your questions to before you set out for the day.

Arm yourself with a smile and some key phrases

But what about the “road less traveled” — the smaller towns and villages you may want to visit? Or, what if you want to visit some countries where western travelers aren’t so common?

The most important thing you need to carry is a smile. Start with a frown, and people wonder what the problem is. Start with a smile, and it puts people at ease. Follow that smile with a phrase in the native language, and you’ll be amazed at the welcome you get.

We’re not suggesting you try to become an expert; even a few words can make a world of difference. Mastering words and phrases like “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Excuse me,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry” give you an enormous range of everyday conversation help, and you can memorize these phrases in a few hours.

Oh, and don’t forget perhaps the most valuable phrase: “Do you speak English?” Even if they don’t, you have been polite enough to ask the question in their language. Because of this, people will often go out of their way to help you.

In some countries, you may be also able to hire a local guide who will help you navigate foreign territory for a relatively low price.

Consult the expert in your pocket


With a smartphone or tablet, you have the opportunity to translate on the go. This in an incredibly useful tool, and you should definitely take advantage of it. Use the internet to check out a few task-specific phrases that fit with your plans for the day. A free online service like Google Translate will give you a favorites list you can access quickly.

cell coverage

Bear in mind, however, that you might need to extend your cell coverage before you set off to another country. Many services don’t include international roaming, so it’s important to check. It’s also possible that you won’t get a signal at all. Thankfully, some translation apps give you offline access, too — a benefit worth considering.

If you’re visiting a country where cell service is sparse, you may have to go “old school” and buy yourself a pocket-sized paperback phrasebook.

Use intentional body language

A bit of basic body language can also work wonders. In many countries, physical gestures are much more pronounced than you’ll see at home. It’s often said that southern Europeans would struggle to have a conversation if you tied their hands together.

Waving, pointing, shrugging your shoulders, or nodding your head are all part of an international language — yours and theirs — so why not try it? It helps to get your message across, and it’s fun!

Have a back-up plan

It’s usually much easier to communicate in a foreign country than you imagine. You can use the ideas above to communicate with natives in the country you’re visiting, but it’s also good to have a back-up plan.


When you arrive at your hotel, ask for a business card. Carry it with you. If nothing else, you can show the card to a taxi driver or a member of the police. It will get you “home”. Many hotels also have local street maps. If the location of the hotel isn’t marked on the map, ask a member of the hotel staff to do so, then stuff the map in a pocket or purse.

Finally, and most importantly, make a note of the nearest embassy or consulate before you leave home. Write the street address on a piece of paper in case you can’t get a cell signal where you’re going. That way, you’ve got a contact point in the unlikely event that you run into trouble.

Traveling to foreign lands is a great adventure, and it would be a shame to let a small obstacle like language get in the way. So do a bit of homework, practice a few handy phrases, and get out there. A little confidence and a few smiles will introduce you to people and places you’ll never forget.


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Bob Beacham writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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