How to get around when you don’t speak the language

Marion Fernandez

Landing in a foreign country can be overwhelming on many fronts, but the worst has to be when you have traveled to a country that speaks a different language. Even in more western countries where you can usually find someone who speaks English, all of the signs, menus, maps, and even money is going to be in another language. While that feeling may not go away immediately, you should not worry. There are many ways to communicate even when you do not speak the language.

Download a translation app

A translation app is a new way to get around in a foreign location.
A translation app is a new way to get around in a foreign location.

This is pretty easy these days. A translation app may help you find the words that you are looking for easier than thumbing through a dictionary. You would need a translator or dictionary in instances where you need something specific but you simply cannot describe what it is without the right words. The listener will know it’s a translation and they are typically far from perfect, but it should get you closer to what you need.

Use your positive attitude

Much of what we say to strangers is what we say without using words. Body language and facial expressions can project how you feel without using words. Smiling when you are trying to ask something will give you better odds in getting help from a stranger.

Likewise, if you are polite and courteous should you make a faux-pas, strangers will be more forgiving of you. There are exceptions to this where it is not customary to smile at strangers, so you may want to check out local codes of conduct first.

Learn a few words

Learn a few important phrases
Learn a few important phrases

Before you hop on the plane and travel around the world, study up on the language. I don’t mean you should attempt fluency in a short span of time, but see if you can find out the important words that will help you get around. Words and phrases like “thank you,” “how much,” “where is the toilet,” and “I need help” can help you out in quite a few different situations. It would be minimal at best, but it can get you around more easily.

Point and gesture to things

I do need to let you know that some hand gestures mean different things in different places, so it is a good idea to make sure you know if the country you are traveling to does have different customs. Once you have figured out the standard accepted method of pointing, you will find you can get around pretty easily. You can point to food on a menu, point to places on a map, or even point at pictures of things on your phone to get the help that you need.

Use flashcards

This actually helped me personally on a trip to Taiwan. Having some phrases, addresses, and numbers listed on a few flashcards can be really useful. Like if you are in a cab and want the driver to take you somewhere, you can simply flash them your card and they can take you there.

If you’re strapped for time and can’t learn the language, jot down important addresses or phrases on flash cards that can be shown to people
If you’re strapped for time and can’t learn the language, jot down important addresses or phrases on flash cards that can be shown to people

Of course, you are welcome to attempt to speak the language as well, it just seems easier to show what you need instead of fumbling over words you do not understand. Flashcards are a handy way to ask for something without a struggle. You don’t even need to make them ahead of time. Your hotel concierge should be able to write down addresses and phrases for you, which will help you get around without too much struggle.

Most importantly, remember to relax and enjoy yourself. While the people, language and customs are different in other countries, at the end of the day, they are just people. Ask them for help when you need to.

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marion-fernandez is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival