Overcoming Language Barriers When Traveling


As exciting as traveling to a new country can be, the inability to speak the native tongue can be daunting. However, it should never be a reason not to travel. There are many ways visitors can get by in a country without so much as speaking a single word (though that certainly helps). I’ve brainstormed a few tips to overcome that language barrier and effectively find your way in a foreign land.

Download a Translation App

Perhaps the most obvious way to communicate with someone who speaks another language is to download one of the many language translation apps that exist today. While choosing one is based entirely on preference, many tend to work very well. Depending on the complexity of the language you are trying to speak, some apps may work better than others. These are great for deciphering menus or written text, and can even be used in conversation.

Utilize Body Language

If verbal communication is not an option, speaking with your hands and face is the next best thing. Be expressive with your body movements. Pointing, nodding, or shaking your head can accurately convey what you are trying to say to a local in that country, but be wary of socially acceptable and unacceptable gestures.

For example, signaling “thumbs up” may be seen as positive here in the United States, but in the Middle East, it is an extremely offensive gesture. In the United Kingdom, what we Americans call the “peace sign” is actually a very rude gesture when given with the back of the hand facing out. Do some research on the cultural norms of the country you are visiting beforehand to avoid any faux pas. It’s safe to say the middle finger is probably disrespectful anywhere.

Study the Basics

Even though learning an entirely new language can be time consuming and downright inconvenient just before a trip, it’s often seen as rude to not learn at least a few basic words of the native tongue you are about to be surrounded by. Simply being able to say things like “thank you,” “excuse me,” “sorry,” or “I only speak English” can effectively tell locals that you need their help in terms of navigation or translation. It’s also very respectful to show that you’ve taken the time to learn some of their language, which often translates to appreciation. In my experience, even saying “hello” in their native tongue can elicit a smile back.

Hire Assistance

If you’re visiting a country with an extremely difficult language to learn and are not comfortable getting around yourself, you have the option of working with a local travel agent for assistance. These professional guides know their way around the country and can step in to help translate certain situations. This is especially useful when you are trying to book a flight or lodging.

Local tour guides can be just as helpful, and are often much more in touch with their respective communities. Aside from being taken on breathtaking sightseeing tours, these guides can help you practice the local language and learn more about the layouts of the country. If you are staying at a hotel, oftentimes their concierge department can provide you with a trusty guide to join you on your ventures.

Get to know a local

Saving the best for last, by far my favorite method of overcoming language barriers is simply through meeting a local, or traveling with someone that speaks the local language. Having a friend who can interpret those tricky conversations can reduce a lot of confusion and frustration on your part, as well as the locals trying to help you. Plus, they can help you find your confidence with pronunciations, common usages, and cultural subtleties, which is difficult to learn through books alone.