Getting around when you don’t speak the local language

Don’t let a lack of language stop you from getting out and about.

Getting around when you don’t speak the local language

Navigating a foreign language can certainly make travelling more of a challenge, however, it doesn’t have to hold you back. Here are six ways to avoid getting lost in translation and get by when you don’t speak the local language.

Key phrases are key
There’s a reason they’re called ‘key’, as they can literally unlock another country for you. Learn how to say a few important words or phrases before you arrive. Speaking from experience, this will change your life while in a foreign country. Not only will you be able to recognise and find facilities, such as toilets and pharmacies, you will win over the locals if you can say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ in their language. They will be more inclined to want to help you more than if you only speak in English.

Speak with your hands
I want to clarify immediately that this should only be used to say nice things! Charades is not just a game though; it can really come in handy. If you don’t know the words for something, pointing or miming with your hands is a perfectly good solution. Just look how it turned out for Bridget Jones in the video below…

Write it down
Having the details of your hotel or destination is always a saving grace when it comes to communicating with taxi drivers or locals.

Be polite
While it’s easy to get frustrated, remember that you are the visitor. If locals are nice enough to try and help you, stay calm and speak slowly, no one wants to go out of their way to communicate with someone who is angry or rude!

Seek out an expert
While the local people may not speak English, the staff at tourist information centres often will. If you’re having trouble and can’t communicate, look for a point of authority to save the day.

It really does have the answer to everything. Not sure what’s on the menu? Google a few key words and voila – now you know your options. When in doubt Google can often act as a personal translator for you while you’re on the road. It can also help with how to pronounce words if you’re worried about sounding silly!

What has helped you before to overcome language barriers while travelling in a foreign country?



    To make a comment, please register or login
    9th Jul 2016
    There is actually software which translates language in real time. Saw it in action a year ago. Very impressive. Why bother with learning a full language?

    9th Jul 2016
    I Learn"t a bit of Spanish many years ago and found this is a bit similar to Italian, Portuguese and French so if in these type of countries I can get around without to many problems.

    Keep in mind one third of the world speak Spanish so not a bad language to learn and its not that hard.
    fish head
    9th Jul 2016
    Found a use for my flair at Charades on a bus trip through Europe year ago. Laughter is one of the great uniters I have ever met.
    22nd Apr 2018
    I used to work overseas advising business people. I found that learning the history of a country helped a lot in understanding the mentality, culture and motivation of the people and avoided many embarrassing situations. 'Which side were you on during the war' was a common, nightmare question. So my first suggestion is 'if you can't learn the language, learn some of the history.'
    If you stick to the big cities (not recommended) English will get you by but don't assume English is spoken in the regions and rural areas. Besides speaking, a major part of travelling is understanding what's around you such as signs. Learning the basics of a 'key' or 'route' language for your area of interest is the way to go. German (because of its economic and tourism influence) is great for much of Europe but the basics of a Latin language (suggest French or Spanish because they can also be used elsewhere) are invaluable for the south.
    Learning a language before you travel (especially if you do it together with your partner) is part of the journey and teaches you something of the country and culture before you travel that real time translations will never do and it helps to keeps your brain active. There are plenty of free or very cheap language learning tools online.
    As a teenager I tried to learn a new language each year. I gave up after around six and probably never learned any really perfectly but it's been an invaluable asset throughout my life.

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