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  • Writer's pictureRJ

How to Overcome Language Barriers When Traveling Abroad

Updated: Apr 2

Editors Note: Whether on business or pleasure, the need to clearly communicate with the locals is essential from the time you arrive to the time you leave their country. Spending years traveling the world as a VP of International Business Development for a major corporation, our guest writer for this post is a savvy global business traveler going to places that most people couldn’t find on a map.

With over 50 years of overseas experience he has traveled throughout many countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America and Europe where little to no English was spoken. Here are some of his tried and tested tips on how to overcome language barriers when traveling abroad.

Note: Always Pack Tissues represents many tried and tested travel sites as what is called an 'affiliate' partner. That means if you click on my ads I may get a commission from a resulting sale.

a chalkboard with multiple languages reading forms of hello

Don't Let Fear of Language Barriers Ruin Your Plans

Overseas travel can seem daunting. There are so many unknowns going into a foreign country that you sometimes think about cancelling the entire trip and just getting on a cruise ship to make it easier.

Language differences, personal safety concerns, money, hotel quality and availability, restaurant protocol, communications, getting around and using public transportation systems can all add up to a stressful and complicated trip if you go unprepared. With a little bit of knowledge of what to expect and some careful preplanning, you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Embrace the Cultural Challenge

The first thing most people think about when going abroad is that you don’t speak the language and your first contact with the locals will be an embarrassing disaster. Relax, no one will be embarrassed if you can’t speak the language.

Most communication is nonverbal so getting your point across is not difficult when considering your surroundings.

Let’s say you walk into your hotel in Italy and after a friendly greeting in Italian, the front desk clerk is there waiting for you to say something. Now what, you don’t speak Italian. But odds are the clerk speaks English.

Here’s a tip – when you approach the front desk have your passport in hand or chat with your friend in English so the clerk can guess at your preferred language.

I made the mistake of checking into a hotel in Spain with my Italian Passport showing and was directed to the clerk that spoke Italian. After a quick chuckle, I explained I have dual citizenship US and Italy and can’t speak a word of Italian so we settled on English and all was well.

Most People in the Tourism Industry Will Speak English...But Don't Rely On That!

Traveling in Europe is easy when you consider most people associated with tourism speak English. Shops, restaurants, train stations, hotels and tourist attractions have so many international visitors that the people in charge usually speak multiple languages.

Learn Some Key Phrases

Try their native tongue if you can. This would mean that you took the time to learn some of their language before leaving home. If you get a blank stare then try English.

At a minimum, look up and learn these phrases in advance:

  • Numbers and counting from 1 to 10

  • How to say hello and good bye

  • Thank you

  • Excuse me/Sorry

  • The word for bathroom

  • How much?

  • Where is....?

Use Duolingo or Google Translate to work on these phrases before your trip!

What If I Botch the Pronunciation?

Your sentence structure doesn’t matter. If you said to someone where is Marriott Hotel in their language, most people would recognize the words for where and Marriott Hotel and point you in the right direction.

Sometimes you’ll get a detailed explanation in their language which doesn’t help so just act as if you understand and say thank you.

Time For Charades: Use Body Language and Hand Signals

Sometimes I resort to body language and hand signals when nothing else is working. If I’m are not sure a restaurant is open, I’ll open the door and pretend to be feeding myself with an open hand under my chin and spooning food into my mouth. The point is made that I would like to eat and I either get invited inside, get the universal no shake of their head or they point to clock showing when they open.

My wife has a whole repertoire of made-up hand signals to get her message across. It may seem embarrassing at first but when you are hungry, lost or don’t have a place to stay, you are forced to communicate any way you can.

One memorable Sunday afternoon in a small town in Sicily my family and I just settled into a cute little restaurant for lunch. The owner came to our table and started to explain what was on the menu in rapid Italian.

Seeing the blank stares on our faces he knew we didn’t understand. I said one word, pasta and got a positive response. We left it up to him to decide on the type of pasta so he served us a local delicacy penne with a creamy blue cheese and pistachio sauce.

Next came his homemade Italian sausage but he had several choices and again we didn’t understand.

Finally, he resorted to saying baaah for lamb, moo for beef, oink for pork.

We understood perfectly and everyone got what they wanted by repeating his animal sounds and having a good laugh.

Traveling throughout Asia is more difficult because their written language is so different than ours. You'll find English spoken at the major American hotels chains like Marriott or Hilton but step outside the door and you are in a real foreign world.

Girl holds a Chinese menu that is hard to understand
The face says it all: Try ordering off this Chinese menu!

Don't expect anyone to understand you like in Europe and you'll be pleasantly surprised and relieved when they do. Clucks, grunts and animal sounds really go a long way globally. Is it embarassing? Maybe a little, but everyone typically has a good time appreciating the situation.

Don't Get Frustrated - You CAN Overcome Language Barriers Abroad

Also remember, if they don’t understand your English, saying it louder, slower or over and over again doesn’t change the outcome. Try a different method to communicate until you find one that works.

Especially in Asia, you can ask the hotel concierge to write down some common phrases that may come in handy or places you want to visit in the local language.

Be sure to bring a business card or stationery from your hotel that shows the name and address of the hotel. This comes in handy when trying to get back to the hotel with a taxi driver that can’t speak or read English.

You can also pre-download the city map on Google Offline maps and pinpoint your hotel if you feel like walking back or just show the hotel location to the taxi driver.

When All Else Fails, Rely on Your Phone

Once I found myself off the beaten path on a small island in Turkey, after being deposited there by a cruise ship and wanted to rent a car for the day.

The locals spoke no English and I spoke no Turkish. Luckily, I always carry my IPhone that speaks multiple languages including Turkish. Google Translate is my go-to app for translation.

Unless you have a T-Mobile international data plan, like I do, with internet access or get on someone’s free Wi-Fi you’ll have to preload the foreign language into the app. This will give you the ability to use Google Translate offline.

I usually type in what I want to say and show the translation to the person that doesn’t understand English. It’s not rude to show them your phone translation. It’s just another way to communicate.

You can hand them your phone for their reply or use the conversation mode and have them speak into the app. Either way you’ll get your point across.

I had an entire dinner conversation in French using Google Translate to do all the talking. It was fun for all and everyone understood that we are just trying to communicate.

Remember, We Are All Just Human

At the end of the day, you do what you have to do to communicate and overcome the language barrier. We are all intelligent people but speak different languages.

Keep in mind that eventually you’ll get into a situation where no matter what you can’t communicate effectively.

As a last resort just smile and say thank you in English then stand in the middle of a nearby crowd and loudly but politely ask “Does anyone speak English?” This usually works since most students learn English in school and welcome the chance to communicate with a real English-speaking person.

Follow these tips and you’ll overcome the language barrier when traveling abroad with savvy and maybe a good story or two as an outcome. Most importantly - don't forget to have some fun in a new and exciting country.

1 comment

1 comentario

14 mar 2023

Wonderful article with good advice!

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