Picture this…It’s all started amazing, your adventure is going to plan, you’re living the dream traveling in an exotic foreign country. Full of confidence you’ve decided to venture away from the tourist area and into the local area. But, that’s where it hits you. You were not warned about it – You’re face to face with it for the first time. Panic strikes, you look around for help but there isn’t any…What the fuck do you do when you’re faced with traveling language problems for the first time and don’t know how to get past communication barrier?
In this post we dive into the easy ways to get around language problems when traveling so it doesn’t become an issue during your future travels.
I have to be honest, having traveled all over the world for more than a decade, I’ve encountered language problems with other travelers I’ve met and with locals. The more I’ve met, the different cultures I’ve been immersed in- I wish i learnt more languages in school.
I’m sure many of you can relate, those of us from English speaking Countries mainly the UK, America and Australia, we never bothered to learn another language. If you did, then props to you but I know I had that ‘English arrogance’ of “Why do I need to learn another language, I’m English, the whole world speaks English, I’ll never had language problems.”…Yeah, yeah I know!
English is spoken everywhere...but is it?
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.
Even in countries where English is universally spoken, once you step out of major cities, out of tourist zones it can start to become difficult. You can be in a major city, walk a few blocks out into a local area, or come face to face with an older local and language problems can present itself.
It makes me laugh when I come across people who say they’ve never had language problems when traveling. That to me just means they’ve never stepped out of the tourist zones. Sorry, not so sorry if that upsets you. –
How to overcome language barriers traveling
The language problems scenario I mentioned right at the beginning of the post could happen anywhere. It could be in a local area, local markets, bus stations, airports, train stations, in remote villages, in a shopping centre, even with other travelers. But the good news is, because of the age we live in, It’s not hard to overcome traveling language problems. In fact we have quite a few easy options.
In this post the 10 easy ways to learn, communicate and overcome those language problems are
- The internet, Google translate and other translators at your fingertips
- Learn a few basic words and numbers
- Physically have words and phrases written down
- Good old phrasebooks
- Body language
- People watch
- Go to language school
- Be around locals, learn from them
- Watch your favourite movies and listen to music in the local language
Language problems can dissapear at our fingertips
Let’s not kid ourselves, traveling isn’t like it was years ago. So many countries around the world are geared for travelers now. There are travel routes all over the world; so it’s not like we go off and dissapear into the complete unknown for a period of time. The world has got smaller because of that lovely thing we all depend on everyday of our lives. We can’t live or cope without it anymore, we carry it around in our pockets.
There are many of you who don’t know a life without it and you wouldn’t be reading this post, nor would it have reached 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 barriers like never 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 remote villages that are not privy to the digital world yet. However, it will be one of your biggest resources when dealing with language problems.
There is one tool on the internet that we’ve come to depend on more than others….Yes, that’s right Skynet…Sorry I mean Google! ( If you know the Terminator films, you’ll understand the reference)
Google aids with traveling language problems!
Google translate will be one of your biggest aids with language problems. It can help you out translating words into English to help you communicate with locals. You will see in certain countries, locals will have google translate ready to translate words into English for you in places like local markets, bus stations or eateries.
There are a number of functions you can use to help and aid you:
- Standard typing to translate (Type in the word(s) you need translating
- Voice translate (Use the mic function, speak to each other in your own language and google will voice translate – It doesn’t always pick up full sentences though, I had a date go horribly wrong in Mexico because of it)
- Translate through your camera (place your camera over the word you need translating and watch the words magically turn into your own language – Helpful for road signs, notice boards and menus)
However do be warned, while this is great help, it doesn’t reconstruct sentences. So if a language uses a different sentence structure to English it can sometimes be embarrassing or worse cause issues.
If Google isn’t your thing, then there are other language-specific translators to help you overcome language barriers.
Google has helped me get out of a few sticky situations over the years, including an over zealous police officer in Colombia.
Learn a few basic words and numbers in the local language
Imagine that scenario at the top of the post again, there’s no google translate to help you. Think how awkward it would be just standing there not knowing how to communicate with that person. You might try and do the whole talk louder thing but you’re just making a fool out of yourself. That local will be looking at you thinking what an ignorant tourist and be less willing to help you out. Chances are they might have even understood you, but because of the way behaved they’re not.
If you have a few words in the bag, doesn’t have to be perfect, nor complete sentences. They will see that you’re trying to make an effort and will be much more receptive and willing to help. It also eases tension, can be an ice breaker and even some laughter between you and the language barrier breaks.
Learn basic words and phrases like:
- Thank you
- Your welcome
- Can you help me?
- Can you tell me how to get to xxx?
- How much is this?
- I don’t speak the language
- I’m awful at speaking the language sorry
- Do you speak English?
- A few food and drink items
- A few numbers at least to 10
You might not think it now, but just those simple words can go a long way in overcoming language problems. Remember nobody is expecting you to conversate fluently, they don’t either but it helps.
There are some great apps out there where you can learn some basic words to overcome language problems when traveling, 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.
Make a note of the words you learn
The words you’ve learnt, or learn along the way; write them down. It helps with muscle memory, your brain becomes familiar with them and you learn to use them in different ways. The more you get to grips with them, the more it puts you in good stead moving forward.
If you don’t know any words, before you head out ask at you accommodation if there are any particular phrases or words you’re likely to need during the day.
It could be things like:
- How much is…
- How do I catch this bus/train?
- Where do I catch the bus/train from?
- Is this bus going to…
- How do I get to…
- What time is the return ride?
- Is this local or tourist price?
- Where is the bathroom?
- Can I have a beer?
- How much is a ticket for…
Learning and writing down these words just makes life easier for you as a traveler. The more you travel the more you appreciate knowing the little things.
By just knowing a few words, phrases helps you blend in and makes you look less like an oblivious tourist. This in turn helps keep scammers and petty thieves away, it also helps with local taxi drivers. It’s unfortunate to say this, but there are some taxi drivers who prey on naive tourists and rip them off. By knowing a few words you can rebuttal them, make it known you’re not a tourist and they do back down.
Phrasebooks to help with traveling language problems
There are many travelers who like to carry phrasebooks around with them. Personally I’m not a big fan of them but that shouldn’t stop you in picking one up if you feel it will help.
Phrasebooks can be useful for language problems but also have some cons too.
- Learn longer phrases
- Are helpful in constructing sentences better than google translate
- Give you help with local dialect
- Learn masculine and feminine versions of words and sentences
- Gives you a broader scope to learn than some language apps
- Are bulky and heavy to carry around
- Takes time to look for the right word/phrase/sentence in real time while talking to a local
- Makes you stick out and look like a tourist
- While you might find local dialect, you don’t get the right slang
- Everything you learn is textbook
- Petty thieves look out for things like phrasebooks/guidebooks to spot tourists
In saying that, if you’re sitting next to your lonely planet phrase book in your accommodation there is no harm picking it up and learning some words, phrases or sentences.
Body language, miming, hand gestures are fun ways to overcome language problems
While it may seem embarrassing to some, one of the most fun ways to break the ice, to try and communicate and one of the easiest ways is through body language and gestures. It’s almost certain to bring out laughter, yes you may make a fool out of yourself initially but sometimes that’s all it takes for barriers to be broken.
- Hellos and goodbyes
- Different waving methods
- A thumbs up
- A peace sign
- mimicking paying for the bill
- Miming a drink
- Insinuating you are hot or cold
- Relaxed body language
- Numbers using your fingers
- To say the size of something
- Miming what you’re trying to say (Not like I’ve ever made chicken noises on the side of a dark road in a village in Thailand)
- Many, many more
And that the thing, just the laughter, the intent and desperation of trying to communicate eradicates any tension between you and a local. Body language, hand gestures, miming is a fun way to bypass language problems.
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.
Watch, listen, learn...
Ever find yourself just people watching? If you’re like me and you do, this is a great way to pick up words too. You just have to sit back and watch, open your ears a little and pay attention to the interactions. The best part is, you can do it anywhere and from afar so you’re not being intrusive. It could be in a cafe, the market stalls, on transport, a beach, just walking around the local area. Also pay attention in the differences in how they interact with other locals and with tourists.
Sit back and:
- Watch and listen to what they say
- What’s their body language like
- Look out for mannerisms
- Check their facial expressions
- What’s the energy like in the interactions
- Tone of voice they use with each other
- Are they friendly, sarcastic, angry, handsy, is there personal space
How to overcome language barriers traveling
While learning a few basic words and google translate are great to help you out to start with, there’s only so far it can take you.
If you end up staying in a place for longer, months, even years you are going to need to substantially learn more. Overtime you’re going to want to have real conversations and just a few basic words only takes you so far.
So what are your options?
- Learn and take language classes
- Go into teaching
- Immerse yourself with locals, make local friends
- Watch movies and listen to well known songs in the local language
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Take language classes
All over the world there are classes you can enroll in to learn the local language. There are different types you can choose from and different levels dependant on time and budget.
You will have to do some research into whats available for you in the region of choice:
- Pre travel lessons or while traveling
- Classroom or online classes
- Crash courses
- Group or Private lessons
- Carefully choose your level
- Official classes or get a local you know to teach you
It’s up to you and at your own pace and budget.
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)
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immerse yourself with locals
Personally one of the best ways to learn languages, dialect and slang is to immerse myself with the people that speak it.
You might be like me and learn from doing and in being submerged in it is the best options. you can:
- Make friends with locals
- Hang around in local places
- Get involved with the culture
- People watch
- Take part in a volunteering program
- 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 initially, by being around it all the time you will absorb it quicker.
watch movies and listen to music in local language
is there a movie or song you know inside out, one that you know every word too without paying attention? You want to find that movie or song in the local language and watch it a few times.
You are essentially becoming your own translator. You know every word, so by hearing it in the local language you can translate the words in your own brain. The words sink in quicker and you understand the context of the language better too.
Communication & language problems are a part of your traveling education
Those ore 10 ways to cope and get over communication and language problems while traveling. As you can see you can help yourself by learning a few words, be open minded to learn, take steps and make an effort with locals, never act like you know better. One of the worst traits a traveler can have is to think they’re superior because their grasp of the English Language is better than the local.
Many don’t realise that in those countries where English is not the first language, those locals can speak 2 or 3 different languages. So be respectful, make the effort and try to engage with them and you will get along just fine.
before you leave
Weather you would like to get informed on long-term solo travel or love reading travel stories of adventure, discovery & despair Amit has you covered. Check out his latest books
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