Language problems while traveling is part 4 of my Long term budget traveling realism’s series.

Wouldn’t it be great, if there were no language problems while traveling? If only you could walk into any country and just speak their language fluently, with no communication problems, no language barriers, nothing lost in translation…Well what if I had the magic answer to this?

No second language…No problem.

Sorry, I actually don’t have a magic answer and although it would great to know more languages fluently; the truth is many of us don’t but that’s not a problem. Over the years I’ve learnt how to cope and get around it.

It was actually a friend of mine who asked me to write this post – He, like myself and so many other backpackers have had language problems while traveling in the past.

So, you’re asking how do you cope and get around it?

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.)

But in all seriousness, like I mentioned above, over the years I’ve learnt to cope and get around language problems while traveling, and here’s the thing – It’s not that big of a problem. Sure there are some countries, towns and villages where English isn’t spoken at all and you might struggle a little. Of course English isn’t the first language for many countries, in some it’s not even the second.

However by in large in main cities, and countries adversed to tourism English is widely spoken at some level and recognized as the universal language. Commonly, in many countries street signs, billboards, door signs etc are written in both local language and in English.

For those times when you do get stuck, this is what’s helped me over the years…

Ways to cope and get around language problems while traveling.

There is one massive tool that we have at our disposal that helps us cope with language problems while traveling –
That lovely thing we call the internet!

No, it doesn’t solve all the problems but It’s a huge help when we’re traveling in foreign countries. The internet and the tools it provides us, makes things so much easier. The biggest tool we can call upon is our trusted friend who lives in our phones right there in our pockets…Yes that’s right, google.

Google.

Google, well google translate to be precise has helped me out no end in the past, It’s helped me translate words, or helped locals translate words into English so I could understand. It’s even got me out of some sticky situations over the years. Like helping me communicate 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 Tom. (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.)

Google translate is a great help in so many situations. Perfect for when you don’t know what’s written on your menu, or a door sign, street signs. Or that non-English speaking receptionist at the hostel you don’t understand, when you don’t know what a product is called in the local language, just translate it. You can even just flash your camera over the words and it will translate it for you.

However it is worth remembering while it’s great with translating words, it’s not so good with full sentences. Google translates it word for word in the order you write it, it doesn’t re-construct the sentence in the correct way it should be said in the local 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 however, make some effort to learn a few basic 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; things like that can go a long way. Don’t underestimate the power of trying; locals appreciate the effort and are more inclined and open to helping you.

There are some great apps out there where you can learn basics from, 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 to. Remember you don’t have to be fluent but learning the basics helps.

Phrasebook’s.

Although I’m not a big fan of this, you can carry a phrase book around with you. They are helpful to learn from avoid having language problems while traveling. 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.

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 – Check out this post 10 gestures misunderstood -Matador network. It’s very useful.

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 or 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…

People who speak both languages.

Sometimes you might hear a fellow traveler speaking the local language, or a local speaking English. Instead of resorting to mimicking just yet, politely ask if they can help you out. Politeness and your attitude will determine if they want to help you or not. I won’t lie, sometimes you can get cranky, it can get frustrating that the other person doesn’t understand you. And, if you just demand or bark at the other person to help you, it’s not going to go down well.

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.

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 of 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.

Watch and listen.

Sometimes just watching and listening to locals interact with each other is a great way to learn how to communicate with them. Sit in a cafe, on a beach, riverbank, wander the markets and do some people watching. Watch and listen to what they say, what their body language to each other is like, the mannerisms even facial expressions. Take it 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.

Long term travelers.

While all the above will help you on your journey, you might want to travel long-term and actually want to learn the language of the country or region you’re traveling in. Below are some things that can prevent having language problems while traveling long-term.

Take classes.

Lot’s of countries offer language classes, some are more comprehensive than others. 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.

Teach.

Alternatively you can be the teacher, lots of countries have programs for English teachers, in some countries you don’t even have to be a recognized teacher back home. There are volunteering 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)

Be around locals.

Make friends with locals, 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. Being around locals, you’re hearing it all around you so you’re more likely to absorb it.

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 thought them English. It’s a great way to learn a language but also you make new friends too. From being around locals, I learnt the truth about how the children begging on the streets were not homeless, the kids are trained to pick pocket 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. (A post on this coming soon)

Watch movies in local language.

A fellow traveler told me this once and I laughed thinking it was ridiculous, it was only when I was on a night bus in Mexico and a movie came on. It was an old movie I had seen it so many times but I watched it in Spanish for the first time and I picked up so many words and sentences because I knew the movie inside out in English I could put together what they were saying in Spanish.

A local guy I knew in Colombia, he spoke perfect English, I asked him how he learnt English, if it was in school, he told me no, he’s just been watching American movies since he was a kid and learnt from that. I was amazed at his level of English!

***

All these things have helped me overcome language problems while traveling and I hope they come in handy for you in the future.

What about you guys, have you had language problems while traveling before how did you cope and get around it? Leave your comments in the comments section

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72 Comments

  1. 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

  2. I love how technology has become a bridge to communicating in foreign languages. I just hope the world can retain the many different languages that exist. I hear some are becoming extinct. Nice post. Thanks!

  3. I always try to learn the basics of the basics! Indeed, language barrier is almost all the time an obstacle, but eventually, we always manage to get by!

    I have this theory about universal language that really helps me to communicate with another person if we don’t have a common language: music, football, juggling, drawing, cooking, there’s so many of them! 🙂
    Dinh-Long recently posted…The Day I Hitchhiked to TokyoMy Profile

  4. Pingback: Traveling realism's - Forever roaming the world

  5. The author has given us a such a great tip in the end! You can know so much about the place by just acting normal and not talking like a tourist to them. I think this tip will keep you safe and aware about the surrounding and how things work there! Nice article 🙂

  6. I agree, I bet living in a country that speaks a different language will help you understand. I really would love to do this, even though English is a universal language, I think it’s only fair to learn their native tongue as well!

  7. Really great post to read, which I’ve saved too. Some fab info. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  8. I agree to the fact that Google is the best one to solve my language woes. It becomes difficult when you visit a place with a different language. I still remember one incident when i went to Chennai and in the local train I bought something from the vendor. And then we had real tough time to understand how much he was asking for it. He won’t speak in English and we did not know the local language!

  9. I’m a big believer in learning a bit of the language of a new country, whenever you go – even if it’s just basic phrases like “where is the bathroom?” or “how much is that?”, and words like please and thank you. I think it’s better to show willing for a new language rather than just expecting everyone to speak english x

  10. Love this!! People so rarely talk about the challenges of travel but this is great 🙂

    • Thank you – I find that as well, as a long-term budget traveler there’s seems to be a reluctance to let you know about things that really happen – I have a series of posts I release on Tuesdays which are the traveling realism’s – I love traveling and had the best time of my life but there is another side of the coin I wish I would have known about before I traveled to help prepare me, so that’s what I’m trying to bring to readers…Both sides of the coin 😀

  11. I loved the idea of writing down few common things, not only do they help you learn the language but also stands by you when your smartphone ditches you !

    • writing down words and phrases come in handy on days out when you know you might need them. I would just get receptionists at hostels to write down a few words so it would help me through the day.

  12. Great tips! I usually try to get by by just pointing and waving my hands around! I’m bookmarking this page 😀

  13. Google translate is great! I’m a big fan of waving my hands around like a crazy person, doesn’t often get me anymore LOL. Useful tips from the post – thanks!

  14. Well yes, one needs to do some homework before travelling to a country where you are unfamiliar language. Getting to know the local culture helps as well

  15. Thank you for these tips. I am downloading Google Translate now, I don’t know why I never did this. I remember my time in Athens when the taxi driver rudely told me, “You know most people here don’t speak English, so when visiting, you should at least learn some basic phrases. You’re lucky I’m from New York.” Worst driver I’ve encountered in my life, but he has a point actually, tourists should at least know basic words when visiting a country which language is not primarily English.

  16. The place that I encountered the biggest issue with a language gap was in Japan! So many Japanese people speak a tiny bit of English, but can’t hold any sort of meaningful conversation. That being said, they are still the most polite and helpful people, even if they have no idea what you actually want.

    South America was actually a blessing for me because I can speak intermediate Spanish. It felt so satisfying every time I had a full and successful conversation.

  17. Great advice! It can be a challenge being in a country where you can’t speak the native language, but as long as you show respect people normally want to help you! Google translate is a real life saver too hey 🙂

    • Sorry for all the hassle – But the camera feature is great for menu’s when you first arrive in a country. It saves a little embarrassment of looking around at what people are ordering – just hover the camera over the menu and walla!! you know what to order.

  18. Great post. I didn’t think of adding Google Translate to my phone until I read your post. I just added it, since my husband is Korean, it’ll be easier for me to follow along with the news. Thanks a ton for this informative post. My in-laws and myself have a language barrier, but you’d never know it from the way we function together. We use non-verbal communication but I know a few Korean words.

    • Oh I bet that’s hard in a Korean household…Is Korean quite difficult to pick up or can you get the general grasp of what is being said? And Google translate has helped me out so much over the years. Glad you found this informative – Just about to hop over to your blog and reply to your comment there 😀

      • Korean is a challenge because there are dialects for your peers, the youth and elders. And it is disresepectful to get it wrong. But, I am learning. Luckily my mother in law is patient with me to teach me the right things to say and when. It’s a cool language tho, I must admit 😉

  19. You can even just flash your camera over the words and it will translate it for you. – Wooow I didn’t know that! The best tip ever. 🙂 Like reading your tips!

    • 😀 thanks – many, many more of them to keep coming your way – Sign up to my newsletter for more posts (Cheap plug 😀 😛 ) but yeah google has an option to flick your camera on and it will translate the word …It’s great fun, helped me no end scan over local menus before.

  20. That’s a pretty cool thing to just point a camera and let google do the translating! I didn’t know about that feature! have you personally tried language classes in the countries you visiteD?

  21. I always like to learn a few phrases when going to a country where I can’t speak the language. You may not be saying it right, but most locals appreciate it when you try!

  22. I think these days there’s a lot of language translator that will help us through our travels. I remember I was struggling when I went to Japan since I didn’t know how to speak Japanese, and many of the Japanese weren’t fluent in English. My fav app is duolingo!

    • I love Duolingo, it’s so easy to use, those little phrases they give you – It’s like you’re a child again matching words and pics together – I like how you advance to another level so it’s like a game 😀

  23. I always rely on Google translate, it does the job! Till date, the maximum language barrier issues I’ve faced were in Japan but the people there were so nice, they’d always find a way to make sure they helped out. I remember one girl even drew on a piece of paper, something she was struggling to explain to us in signs. Although its not very convenient, I find it very interesting to come up with creative ways to interact with people from around the world.

    • I’ve heard that about Japan the people are so friendly and do as much as they can to help you 😀 – That’s thing I find, sometimes when all else fails and you start to get a little creative the other person relaxes too and you get a lot further 😀

  24. Useful tips and suggestions! Definitely something to keep i mind if travelling abroad.

  25. When I worked abroad for a couple of years, I invested in a handheld translator. I typed in the word in English and it would translate it to the local language. I could show these words on the little screen to a receptionist, a store clerk, etc. and they’d understand. There is also an audio option so they can listen to it. Eventually though, those years I spent abroad gave me the chance to learn thier language. 🙂

    • Oh, I didn’t know about the Audio one, that’s a great shout 🙂 I’ve seen people who use the translators and they get by just fine with them, there are just so many tools to help us now days 😀

  26. I admire studying foreign languages. I can already speak English, Polish, French and some Spanish. Google translate definitely helps but I always try to explain everything to people even only using body language and sometimes it helps 🙂

    best,
    Kasia

    • Body language, and hand gestures are a great way to communicate, I’ve spent a day with a local who spoke no word of English but we had a great day communicating non-verbally with each other. We both laughed all the so we were doing something right haha. It’s great you can speak so many languages 😀

  27. Ha, I definitely use Google translate while walking around a lot. Great tips! Not knowing the language is still one of my biggest fears whenever I travel.

  28. Great tips!! google is totally my favorite!!! I´m living in Barceloa and my husband´s from italy… nobody speaks English in these countries so I had to learn their language… but good for me 🙂

  29. I haven’t traveled internationally before but I do come across a lot Spanish speakers. I love Google translate. I think my general rule will be to always know how to ask where the bathroom is and how to say thank you.

  30. It used to be so much more difficult than it is today. At least we now have apps that can do a lot of the translating for us!

  31. I haven’t ever travelled to an area where english wasn’t commonly known. However I want to travel the world and learn about different cultures and expand my horizons so it does make me nervous that I don’t know another language. This post was reassuring and also provided some good tips. Thank you.

    • That’s the great thing when you travel, if you learn a few words and make the effort with locals they will help you. You should never let language stop you 😀 – I’m glad you enjoyed the post 😀

  32. Yeah, in most countries English is widely spoken. It’s becoming sort of a universal language now. Do come to Namibia if you ever have the chance. We speak English here too ;

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