Updated December 3, 2020
One of the first things you may notice when you visit a new place is that there are people all around you speaking, yet you don’t understand a word. It can be confusing to deal with a language barrier.
Trying to get grounded after a long flight when you land in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language can be very overwhelming. You need to find transportation to your hotel or accommodation, and orient yourself to this new place. Maybe you’re picking up a rental car or maybe you’re taking a taxi or public transportation. This article provides 12 strategies for overcoming a language barrier when you travel.
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Why You Should Consider Learning Another Language
We connect to other people through conversation. Whether it’s while you’re traveling or at home, at a restaurant or in a park, talking is how we engage other people. It’s how we get to know each other. It’s how we express our needs and interests and how we can do for others.
That’s not to say that you can’t connect without speaking. I have had many “conversations” pantomiming and have gotten my needs across when I’m traveling. But, when you can speak with someone, it helps you to build and deepen a connection. It’s a great thing when you’re traveling or otherwise, really.
Learning another language also a really great and constructive way to use your time when you can’t travel for any the reason. You get to stretch yourself and engage your mind in a way you may not be used to. There are so many great apps and tools that you can use so it’s a matter of figuring out what works best and setting aside the time.
So, instead of turning on Netflix, consider Duolingo (or another language-learning app) instead. Or talk with a native speaker live with Italki. Find someone to practice with. The next time you travel to a country speaking the language you’ll have a whole new perspective. You don’t need to be fluent to make an impression and to be able to connect with someone.
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How to Overcome a Language Barrier
It can be difficult to communicate in a country where you don’t speak the language. This is especially true when the letters are different, so you don’t recognize anything in writing and can’t read it aloud either.
Though barriers in communication are a challenge, there are strategies to overcome language barriers so you can express yourself to get your needs met. Learning how to overcome a language barrier is a top tip for enjoying yourself when traveling.
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You may not be ready for a conversation, but that’s not necessary when you’re trying to order food in a restaurant, check into a hotel, or purchase something at a market or store. Being flexible and creative will go a long way along with these 12 strategies to overcome language barriers.
1. Learn a Few Key Words and Phrases
It’s always a great idea to at least learn a handful of words and phrases for any country you visit. Here is the list I usually aim for:
- Thank you
- Do you speak English?
- Water (and red wine)!
At a minimum, it demonstrates politeness and that you are showing an interest in attempting to be able to communicate. If you’re lucky, you may find some people who speak English, particularly in places tourists go like restaurants and hotels.
In some places, like Paris for example, I found if you don’t at least make an effort to open a conversation in French, many people won’t talk with you. In my experience, even a very badly-spoken “Parlez-vouz Anglais?” (do you speak English?) helped. I joked that I butchered the beautiful language so badly that they felt compelled to speak English if they could.
Language Pro Tips
I have found it’s helpful to bring a small phrasebook with me when I travel to help prompt me to some of the more common phrases when I get stuck. And, it shows you’re making an effort! Here are some that I have found helpful:
If the language you’re looking for isn’t listed, you can click on one of the links and then search for the language you’re seeking. Lonely Planet also offers some great phrasebooks. Where Rick Steeves focuses on Europe, you can find Lonely Planet books for other areas as well.
My Thoughts About Paris
There are a lot of language barrier examples I could refer to. I’ll share this because when people talk about how difficult it is to communicate in foreign countries, invariably, people who have visited Paris (or, even France) will mention how so many speak English and yet they won’t with Americans visiting there. They must hate Americans! (I don’t believe this, but I have been told this quite a few times).
Yet, many of the same Americans make no effort to speak French at all. I often find these are the same people who make comments about non-English speakers in the United States that “they are in America and they should learn to speak the language!”
I encourage you to step back and put yourself in the other person’s shoes, in either scenario. Perhaps you could be more patient when you meet someone in the U.S. who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t speak it well, to try to help them to communicate. And maybe when you visit Paris or any country where English isn’t the native language, you can open with at a minimum, “Hello, do you speak English?”
If you try it, I think you’ll find you may appreciate the results.
2. Pantomime When You Need to
Remember the game Charades? One person picks a card and has to act out a word or phrase. It’s not easy, but it’s quite helpful when dealing with a language barrier.
Are you in a restaurant? Point to a picture on the menu. Are you in a market? Point and gesture for the person you’re trying to communicate with to write a number down on a piece of paper so you understand the cost in the local currency. Asking for directions? Someone can point you in the right direction.
3. Be Friendly and Expressive
Being friendly and polite goes a really long way. If you are nice and appear to be trying, you have a much greater chance of people being more patient and helping you. When I went to Colombia, it seemed that whenever I (feebly) attempted to speak Spanish, someone would approach me that spoke better English than I speak Spanish to help me.
Politeness counts as well. “Hey, do you speak English?” may not be the best way to ask for help. At least even saying “hello” in the local language can be a more polite open than a very casual one. In many countries, casual speech with a person you don’t know isn’t appreciated.
4. Consider Context
When your words are failing you and you can’t bridge the language barrier, sometimes context can be a big help. An easy example is when you walk up to the front desk at a hotel. Chances are, the person is saying something like, “Hello, would you like to check-in?” or “Hello, how can I help you?” A smile with a wave and providing your name may be just the trick.
Even better would be to say “Hello! Do you speak English?” in the local language.
Focus your words on expressing your thoughts. For example, you can say to someone, “would you like me to take your picture?” or “can you take my picture?” Or, you can simply say, “photo?” The second is much easier to understand, especially if someone is not a native speaker.
Now, if you also pantomime taking the picture, gesturing with a smile, that person will have no misunderstanding of your intent. If you keep what you say simple and basic, whether in your native language or the language that is spoke where you are visiting, you’ll have a much better chance of getting your needs met.
6. Write it Down
If someone is telling you something, for example, giving you a name or a street address, and you can’t quite make it out, ask them to write it down. You may be able to better understand and it gives you the option to look it up or to ask someone.
When I was traveling in Colombia, I caught a cold. I always overdo it when I travel solo, and this was no exception. The receptionist at my hotel spoke some English, but I didn’t expect a pharmacist to. So, I explained to Marcela what medications I wanted and she wrote them down for me so I could show it to the pharmacist.
In the past, I have tried pantomiming my needs, and that can be good for a laugh if you’re in the mood. (Try pantomiming “insomnia” for fun, or any other medical condition)!
7. Try, and Be Ready to Laugh
An effort really goes a long way when dealing with a language barrier. Do your best to communicate in any way that you can, whether it be with words or gestures. Remember, you are in their country.
I took two years of Spanish in high school, which was… well, quite a few years ago! I know some words and phrases though I’m horrible at attempts to conjugate verbs. You know what? I try anyway. Even if I know the words I’m saying don’t make a sentence and are bad grammar that a first grader could do better at, I still say the words. The person at least understands what I am saying and I’m demonstrating an effort.
When you say something wrong or completely mispronounce something, it’s ok to laugh! I have shared many great deep belly laughs with people I just met because I realize I said something very wrong, or even just that what I’m saying is pretty awful. There’s no better way to make a connection with someone than to be real and to laugh. Who doesn’t appreciate that?
8. Ditch the Slang
Even though someone may speak some English, that doesn’t mean that they understand everything said in English. Phrases like, “what’s up?” and “I’m pretty good” can be quite confusing for someone who is not a native English speaker. Instead, stick to simple ways of saying what you want to that aren’t slang so people are more likely to understand you.
9. Speak Slowly and Enunciate
There’s always that joke that when you travel to other countries, simply speak slowly, loudly, and add an appropriate accent and people will understand what you’re saying. This is kind of like the concept of Spanglish in the United States.
Though you don’t have to raise your voice, speaking slowly and being sure to enunciate can be really helpful with communication. I know when I try to listen to a Spanish speaker, I have a hard time as it’s usually spoken so fast. So, I often ask, “despacio, por favor,” or slowly, please (probably in pretty horrific grammar, but as I mentioned above, the person I’m trying to speak with will at least understand me). Sometimes that alone helps me to make out what they are saying enough that I can communicate.
10. Google Translate
I will say Google Translate is a game-changer. You can type or speak into this app and it will translate to the language of your choice. Where I used to be able to express basic needs, now I can actually have a conversation with someone, with minor delays.
This only is effective if you have WIFI on your phone and a data plan that works in the country you’re visiting. (Though, you do have the ability to save some words and phrases for later use when you have a connection). Having had it in most places I have visited recently, it’s a major gaping hole when I haven’t had the ability to use Google Translate.
This is a tremendous help and one of the most important apps for travel, in my opinion.
11. Take Lessons
If you are planning to spend some time in another country, you can look into local language classes. It’s a good way to meet people as well as to learn.
If you want some help with learning the language or really want to up your game, you can get one-on-one online tutoring sessions through italki. You choose your teacher and take lessons whenever it’s convenient for you. And the costs vary by teacher. You benefit as you’re not just reading from a book or listening to a recording, but actually interacting in real-time with someone fluent in the language you want to learn. Pretty amazing!
You can also ask a local friend if you happen to know someone either living there or that speaks the language. This is a great way to learn and to practice. And, you can ask someone for help. Even if you only know a few words, you and use them along with context and pantomiming to get your thoughts/needs across and ask for help with the right words to say. I have asked for many impromptu language lessons, and people usually appreciate the effort!
Another option is to get an app. Duolingo and Babbel are two great apps that I have used to help learn some words and phrases that will be useful when I travel. They give you the opportunity to both see the words and hear the pronunciation which is really helpful.
12. Offer to Practice
For people that are native English speakers, or even are fluent in English, you offer a great opportunity to help others practice. English is viewed by many countries as the universal language, so it’s desirable to learn it. And, believe it or not, English is not an easy language to learn. Most rules in English are broken in certain scenarios, so that makes it quite difficult. This video about English pronunciation really demonstrates this concept well:
So many times when I have traveled, someone will attempt English and say that their English is not very good. It makes me laugh as every single time this happens, their English is much better than my attempts at whatever language they are speaking! So I offer to help them if they would like and that shifts it so they don’t feel as embarrassed about their English-language skills. I help them learn and it’s a wonderful feeling.
Overcoming a Language Barrier
Dealing with a language barrier can sometimes be one of the most challenging aspects of traveling. Particularly, when traveling in countries where the letters are completely different so you don’t have the option to read a word to ask for help.
Managing a language barrier can be a great way to really get to understand the culture of a country and to make new connections. It’s something to keep in mind when in your own country and you encounter it there as well. Do you get impatient and think the person is in your country and should learn to speak the language, or do you try to help them to the best of your ability? There’s a lesson to be learned here for all.
Travel opens our eyes and helps us learn and grow as human beings. We don’t need to be perfect, we just need to try.