How to Communicate Through a Language Barrier When Traveling Abroad

Communication When Traveling Abroad

One of the biggest reasons people give for not traveling abroad is their fear of not speaking the native language. If you are amongst this crowd, you probably have nightmarish images of yourself getting lost on the wrong While this might happen, it won't turn out nearly as bad as you think it will.

For one thing, most people on the planet will help a stranger in need, especially if it's not a huge burden to them. You also aren't nearly as reliant on language to communicate as you think you are. The good news is that you still can navigate in a country that doesn't speak a word of English. 

Learning some of the language will come in handy, but you don't need to swallow the whole dictionary or even the whole phrasebook.

Here are some key categories of words to learn:

1) Directions. Learn how to ask for directions. Also learn the words for "north", "south", "east" and "west" aswell as "left", "right", "continue" and "straight". "Up" and "down" are also useful terms for tourists.

2) Learn how to say "thank you", "good day", "goodbye" and other pleasantries. If you speak nothing else, at least learn how to say the warmest phrases in the language. The locals will appreciate your effort to learn even a little of their tongue.

3) Leam the words for "hotels", "restaurant" and beach". Leam the local word for any kind of amenity or destination you might need to find.

4) You should know at least the basic numbers. If you can't manage anything else "1-10" will get you surprisingly far. This comes in handy when getting directions (like asking how many blocks to walk) and also when asking about prices. Additionally, "how much does this cost?" is a useful phrase that any tourist should know.

English-speaking tourists and you already stick out like a sore thumb. In some destinations, this will make you a target, and vendors will try to rip you off. Most of the time however, locals already understand that you're not from around here and will be eager to help you out. They will make an effort to communicate with you. Some of them may even speak English, or they may speak slowly in their language with plenty of hand gestures.

When asking for directions, it helps to have a map. Rather than trying to keep directions straight in your head, have a map ready to show the local so they can help you figure out a route. Be pleasant and grateful to whoever helps you. When ordering in a restaurant, don't be shy from pointing to items on the menu to communicate with the waiter.

Use hand gestures.

If you are a vegetarian, you can point to the item and as "meat?" in the local language. That's a pretty easy way to understand the contents of a dish. If you do attempt to speak the local language, have a good sense of humor, and be prepared to make plenty of mistakes. No one will be too hard on you for making mistakes, and they'll likely appreciate a foreigner taking the time to learn their language. If you're concerned that you will be isolated in your travel because you don't speak the language, don't let that stop you. So much human experience, interaction, and communication happens without needing language at all.


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