9 Tips for Visiting A Country Where You Can’t Speak the Language

International travel has a variety of challenges. One of the most difficult challenges of traveling abroad is not being able to speak the native language(s) of the country you are visiting . Despite the complexity of this challenge, this isn’t something that should stop you.

If you are reading this, YOU CAN get by in most countries. Although English is not spoken as a native language in most countries, it is a trade language that is taught in schools all over the world. A trade language is a common language that is used when two people of different linguistic backgrounds meet and interact. More conversations are now spoken in English between non-native speakers than native speakers.

The first time I witnessed this was in Vietnam, where I observed a Japanese tourist speaking to the Vietnamese hotel concierge about a tour that his family wanted to take. The conversation was like an awkward dance, as they both searched for common words and made various hand motions to make themselves understood.

Anthony and I have traveled to a number of places where we haven’t spoken the native language. This has NEVER stopped us from doing or seeing anything.

Here are a few pointers on how to travel to a place where you don’t speak the native language:

  • Get a phrase book (we like Lonely Planet’s iPhone apps because you can hear the pronunciation as well) and use the basics. This is just hello, goodbye, thank you, excuse me and how are you? Five phrases. You probably won’t be understood the first time you use those phrases either, but the attempt and effort is always a good thing. The phrase book is always helpful too if the conversation breaks down and you need to point at a phrase to be understood. Google translate, despite its funny grammatical translations, can be a good tool to use in a bind as well to get the basic message across.
  • Don’t be afraid to use charades. Yes, hand motions and demonstrations can make you feel a little silly sometimes, but they can also be very effective at getting your meaning across.
  • Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. Pretending you understand when you don’t is a good way to end up with more expensive bill or a tour that you didn’t want to take.
  • Have patience. You will make mistakes. Things won’t always be easily understood. Have patience with yourself and with the people you are interacting with. Don’t be upset when something is lost in translation. Just know that it happens and accept the inconvenience..
  • If you have special needs – like allergies or a particular medicine regiment, get those translated before you depart for your trip. If it is severe allergies, be sure this is communicated to everyone you are traveling with and you know how to get emergency treatment. Have a notecard that says for example, “I am VERY allergic to peanuts” in the native language and use that card everywhere. Learn to say that phrase and emphasize it.
  • Make a concentrated effort to listen well. Listening may be your key to better understanding. Sometimes sentences are phrased differently than you may be used to or pronounced differently than they might be in standard English. Listen well, repeat what the person is saying back to them. Most of the time, with a little effort this can be overcome.
  • Have your itinerary and the address of your lodging translated into the language of the country you are entering. Most of the time, this can be done at the info center at the airport upon arrival. Many hotels often have the address and directions written in the native language on their website. Just remember to print them out and keep them with you.
  • Call the hotels, tours etc. ahead of time (I recommend using Skype for its low international rates). This will give you a gauge as to whether you can communicate before you leave. If you feel that it is impossible to communicate with one of them, then this gives you time to change your itinerary before you leave. Beware of cutting corners on language – sometimes a cheaper rate isn’t worth the hassle of doing say five loops around Beijing because the driver has taken you to the wrong hotel because he can’t figure out where the right one is. Quite often, the large, prominent chain hotels are most recognizable and have services like English-speaking concierges that will make your trip smoother.
  • You are a guest and languages are hard. Any effort that someone puts out to speak English is effort on their part to accommodate guests in their home. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine the difficulty of getting by in America without speaking English.

If you have any questions about traveling to a specific country or how we’ve dealt with specific language barriers, please leave a comment!


Feature image courtesy of dreamstime.com