Language problems when traveling

Language problems when traveling

Part of Forever Roaming the Worlds Traveling Realisms series - This one focusses on language problems when backpacking(Last Updated On: January 8, 2020)

Language problems when traveling is part 4 of forever roaming the world’s Long-term budget traveling realism’s series.

Imagine if there were no language barriers when traveling to a foreign country. If only you could walk into any country in the world and just speak their language fluently, with no communication problems and nothing lost in translation.

No second language…No problem

It would great to know other languages fluently but the honest truth is many of us from predominantly English speaking countries didn’t bother to learn a 2nd or 3rd. We had the chance in school but how many of us carried that on? If you did props to you, I wish I had. Back in school, I had that ‘English arrogance’ of why do I need to learn another language, I’m English the whole world speaks English!

Don’t get me wrong, yes English is universally recognized, most of the world speak it or at least understand but there will be places and people that don’t.

It was actually a friend of mine who asked me to write this post – He, like myself and so many other backpackers, have come across language problems traveling before.

How do you cope and get around language problems when traveling?

After traveling across 6 continents, I’ve found there are plenty of ways to communicate and get by without having too many language problems while traveling.

You’re asking how?

Well, if you’re standing next to my friend Tom, you step back and laugh as he tries to communicate in his own cartoonish way …He’ll have you rolling around on the floor, It’s hilarious! (He’s a typical Brit abroad.)

The world has changed

Traveling the world isn’t the same as it once was, you’re very unlikely to go off to discover a new culture you’ve never heard of, you’re going to that country because you’ve heard of it because it interests you. You already know a lot about the country and the people before you step foot in it. And, how do you know all this beforehand? That lovely thing that practically rules our lives now.

Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this, this post wouldn’t be read in 131 countries – Yup that’s right I’m talking about the Internet!

The internet provides so many tools that have helped bridge the gap between languages and communication barriers like never seen before. No, it doesn’t solve all the language problems when traveling, there will be times when you don’t have signal, or your battery runs out, and there will be small villages that are not privy to the new world yet. However, it will be one of your biggest resources and with that, it’s biggest tool.

That tool lives in our pockets and it’s there at the touch of a button, and plays an integral part in our daily lives…Yes, that’s right Skynet..sorry I mean Google! (If you know the Terminator films you’ll understand the reference).


Google, well Google translate to be precise has helped me out no end in the past. It’s helped me translate words, helped locals translate words into English so we could communicate, I’ve had conversations with people through it before and It’s even got me out of some sticky situations over the years.

Google translate came to my aid with an over-zealous highway police officer who spoke no English just outside of Medellin, Colombia. Without google that morning, things could have got a lot worse for me and my friend. (A story for another day but let’s just say that officer didn’t believe we were English, immigration and Bogotá Airport were called and he wasn’t even looking for a bribe.)

There are so many other situations it will help you too, there are features to it that many don’t realize it having, like the camera feature. You hover your camera over the word you need translating and it converts it for you. This is a life saver with street signs and menus or with that one non-English speaking receptionist.

However, do bear in mind although there are times you can have basic conversations through translate, it doesn’t actually reconstruct full sentence. It translates word for word, so it doesn’t take into account a sentence said in one language might not necessarily be constructed in the same way as the other language.

Of course, it’s not just google, you can download language-specific translators and other internet tools to help you along your journey.

Learn a few basic words

While Google and all the apps are a massive help, you should make some effort to learn a few basic local words. You’re not going to have internet access 100% of the time, in some countries WiFi is very unpredictable and unreliable.

Learning a few basic words like hello, thank you, please, you’re welcome, water, food, a few numbers; can go a long way. Don’t underestimate the power of trying; locals appreciate the effort and are more inclined and open to help you.

There are some great apps out there where you can learn the basics, like Duallingo, Babbel, memrise, mindsnacks. I used Duallingo to learn basic Spanish, it’s fun to use, quick to learn and gives you simple and useful phrases too. Remember you don’t have to be fluent but learning the basics helps.


Although I’m not a big fan of them, you can carry a good old fashioned phrase book around with you. You can pick up longer phrases, even sentences in the correct way they should be constructed. You can learn if a word if masculine, feminine when to use that word etc.

Personally, I rather keep these books at home or in my hostel if I do ever use them. Why? Because carrying them around, getting them out in public just makes you look like a tourist and in turn a target for petty thieves. And it’s also quite difficult at times to stand there rifling through pages to look for the right words or phrase while you’re trying to speak to somebody.

Saying that, if you have one sitting next to your lonely planet book, pick it up and learn a few phrases.

Writing things down helps

Before you set out, write a few things down, ask at your hostel if they can help you, right down a few words or phrases you might need that day like ‘Is this bus going to…..’ If you’re heading to a new destination write down an address or take a screenshot of a route on google maps to make it easier for you. Taxi drivers in some countries will try to scam you if they think you’re a gullible tourist and don’t speak the language. If you have a route you know where you are going and if they deviate you can point it out to them.

Think you may have language problems while traveling? This post will show how you can get by without speaking the same language as local.

People who speak both languages

You will come across people who speak your language and the native tong, they could be a fellow traveler or a local. Instead of resorting to mimicking actions just yet, politely ask if they can help you out. Your politeness will determine if they are willing to help you or not. I won’t lie sometimes not being able to communicate with someone can get frustrating, so demand help the person who speaks both languages is not going to help you.

Also, sometimes you will find locals playing dumb (not that they are, it’s an expression.) What I mean is, they may full well speak English but pretend they don’t. And depending on your attitude you’ll see how they interact with you. Be friendly and they are more likely to open up and speak English back, be rude and they will continue in their native tong.

Body language/miming/hand gestures

You cannot underestimate how big of a help this can be. Sometimes you don’t need words to be able to communicate with somebody. There are times you can make out what somebody is trying to say just by their body language or hand gestures.

There are some universal motions that are known the world over. Hand gestures are easily recognizable like gesturing for a bill in a restaurant, if you have an upset stomach, wanting a drink, etc. However, you should make sure which gestures are acceptable. This post 10 gestures misunderstood Is very useful.

Think you may have language problems while traveling? This post will show how you can get by without speaking the same language as local.

Sometimes you might just have to get a little creative and mimic what you mean, this can be fun or embarrassing depending on how you look at it.

We’ve all been there before, no phone or no WiFi to translate, you’re lost for words, you’re both looking at each other with a blank stare so you just try to mimic what you mean…Not that I’ve ever mimicked a chicken and made chicken noises to an old lady at a local street food stall in the middle of nowhere before. * Looks away and whistles*

Moving swiftly onto the next…

Watch and listen

Sometimes just listening and watching to locals interact with each other is a great way to learn how to communicate with. Sit in a cafe, on a beach, riverbank, wander the markets and do some people watching.

Watch and listen to what they say, their body language, their mannerisms, and even facial expressions. Take it all in, after seeing it a few times you’ll start to recognize what they mean and then you can start using them.

If you’re in a restaurant subtly watch and listen to what others order and then see what dish comes out. It’s like a recognition game for your brain.

Think you may have language problems while traveling? This post will show how you can get by without speaking the same language as local.

Long-term travelers

While all the above will help you on your journey, you might want to travel long-term and want to learn the local language. Below are some things that can prevent having language problems while traveling long-term.

Take classes

Many countries around the world offer language classes to travelers. Do some research, check what level you want to be taught at, the length of time you want to put into it. You can do crash courses, or slow lessons, there are private tutors or you can attend classroom sessions in groups. It’s up to you and at your own pace.


Alternatively, you can be the teacher, there are a plethora of programs to become English teachers, in some countries you don’t even have to be a recognized teacher back home. There are volunteer programs where you can teach English and while you’re teaching English, you’ll learn the local language from the kids and local teachers around you. (For more info check out World teach or TEFL)

Be around locals

Make friends with locals, Couchsurf, hang around in local places, people watch, take part in a volunteering program or take part in a home-stay. Like with listening and watching you pick up so much from just being around locals. Although there may be some language problems being around locals, you’re hearing it all the time around you so you’re more likely to absorb it.

Think you may have language problems while traveling? This post will show how you can get by without speaking the same language as local.

While I lived in Bali, although English is widely spoken, I picked up so much because I was around locals and taxi drivers all the time. I made friends with locals and got them to teach me as I taught them English. It’s a great way to learn a language but also you make new friends too.

From being around locals, I learned the truth about how the children begging on the streets were not homeless, the kids are trained to pickpocket and target unsuspecting tourists. Even taxi drivers I got to know would tell me how they would scam tourists. When you’re not seen as a tourist yourself locals open up and tell you what they feel about tourists.

Watch movies in the local language

A fellow traveler told me this once and I laughed thinking it was ridiculous.

It was only during a bus ride in Mexico and an old movie that I knew came on. It was in Spanish but I knew the movie well enough to know what was being said. And just from knowing what was being in English I was able to pick up so many Spanish words.

A local guy I knew in Colombia, spoke perfect English, I asked if he learned it in school and he told me he hadn’t. He spoke and understood English just from watching movies in English; I was amazed he could speak perfect English just from watching movies.

Traveling realism

As you can see, there may be times when you struggle to communicate and have language problems with locals, there will be countries you didn’t expect to struggle with language but there are plenty of ways to communicate when locals don’t speak the same language as you or vice-versa.


Did you find this ‘Language problems when traveling’ post helpful? Let me know in the comments below if there is anything else you would like to know.

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Think you may have language problems while traveling? This post will show how you can get by without speaking the same language as local.
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72 Responses

  1. Wallis says:

    I think it’s important to know a few basic words in the language (or have them handy with you), but in our age of technology you don’t really need to know the local language. I mean it obviously makes things easier,. I enjoy learning new languages so for me it’s just a new challenge to see how far I can push myself
    Wallis recently posted…Subsistence Hunting in AlaskaMy Profile

  2. In my country there are so many Ethnic languages. So, whenever I plan a trip somewhere with a different dialect, I always make sure I have a local friend from there lol.

  3. As an English speaker, I have never really had an issue with language whilst travelling, we have travelled in Western European countries and a few words of Spanish, Italian and French seem to go a long way. I was a bit worried about it travelling in Iran this year though, you would have loved our conversation via Google Translate over dinner in Isfahan, I even know how old the managers kids are and when his wife is due to have their next baby. Thank god for Google Translate. LOL

    • Hahah that is an amazing story ? same for me being English and it being universally spoken I’ve never really had too much problem but in some Asian and Latin countries it was a little issue in less touristy places …but Google translate and sign language can get you through haha

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