How to travel when you don't know the language.

Ever since I was young I wanted to visit Paris. The iconic Eiffel Tower, the small bistros, quaint art galleries in Montmartre and the colorful macaroons made Paris the #1 destination on my hit list for many years. But as you can imagine I had a lot of concerns about traveling to a country where I did not speak the language. Nevertheless I did not let that stop me from booking my week-long solo trip to France. You shouldn’t either!

Although I speak Haitian Creole fluently, I usually get lost in the sauce when I try to speak French. Haitian Creole is a French based language from Haiti, a tropical island in the Caribbean. And contrary to what a lot of people might think, although Creole comes from French, Haitian Creole and French are two different languages. Despite the similarities you cannot use them interchangeably (trust me, I’ve tried).

Back to my Paris story though – while planning my trip to Paris, I had a lot of concerns.

How will I navigate the city? What if I get lost? How will I order food at a restaurant? Will people treat me differently because I do not speak the language?

These are all legitimate questions to have when you travel to a country where you do not speak the language, however, since my first trip to France, I have traveled to many other countries around the world where English is not the primarily language including Ecuador, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Croatia and Montenegro.

Today I have a lot more confidence about traveling to countries where I do not speak the local language because I’ve discovered many resources to help me communicate. In fact I book flights to different countries now without ever considering the potential language barrier.

With that being said, here are some of the ways that you can get by in a country where you do not know the language.

 

How To Get By When You Don’t Speak the Language

Resources for Traveling to a Foreign-Language Country

 

Use Language Translation Apps

Language translation apps are a great option when you’ve arrived at a destination and need help translating on the spot.

Google Translate is my favorite free language translation app because it is extremely easy to use and you can even use the app offline. I primarily use the app when I’m trying to decipher something in writing. This could be reading a menu at a restaurant or a sign on the subway.

Google Translate translates over 100 languages to English. They even have a new “tap to translate” feature where you can translate anything on your phone, from inside any app – text messages, YouTube comments, social media posts and more. All you have to do is copy the text and the translation appears. You can even hear how to say the word or phrase instantly.

I recently used Google Translate extensively during my trip to Croatia. Whenever I wanted to place an order at a restaurant, I used Google Translate to translate words and phrases. After listening to the translations a few times I was ready to place my order. The waitstaff in Croatia were always impressed by my attempts.


Learn Key Phrases Before You Go

Learning key phrases before you go is a simple way to familiarize yourself with the local language and build the confidence you need to communicate with locals.

To quickly learn a few basic phrases simply do a Google search for “useful phrases in [Enter Country]” and pick the ones most relevant to you. If you prefer video, you can also search for tutorials on YouTube.

As a rule of thumb, I like to learn 10 basic words.

Some of the key phrases that I try to learn before traveling to a new country include:

  • Hi
  • Good morning
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Can I have? (or Can I take?)
  • Yes
  • No
  • Sorry
  • Excuse me
  • How much?

 

Learn with a Teacher

If you have some time before your trip and would like to immerse yourself in the language and culture, consider face-to-face lessons from a reputable virtual language program like Language Trainers.

Before you get started with Language Trainers take their free online language test in the language that you would like to learn. Languages include Arabic, Chinese, Danish, English, Japanese, Spanish and more.

This placement test assesses your skill level which helps tailor your learning program to your ability and goals. From there you can try a free Skype lesson to see if this program is the right fit for you.

One of the advantages of hiring an experienced native-speaker as an instructor is that you get to learn the correct pronunciations. They also understand the rules, idioms and slang. Via Skype you can also listen, write, read and interact with your instructor. Interacting and practicing with native speakers is one of the most efficient ways to learn a new language online. This is something I’ve found is missing from popular language apps like Duolingo.

It’s amazing how equipping yourself with the right tools and resources can help you connect more with a destination and its people. From using translation apps to taking one-on-one language lessons with a native speaker, rest assured that there are many ways to experience a new country without knowing the native tongue.

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11 replies
  1. Rob Dyer says:

    Thanks for this!

    I like these tips, particularly the essential words to learn. I always try to do this. And it’s surprising how often those few key words come to mind even years between using them!

    I wrote a similar article entitled “How to travel in Japan without speaking Japanese” – would love it if you were to take a look and leave a comment if you felt so inclined! 🙂

    http://www.therealjapan.com/how-to-travel-in-japan-without-speaking-japanese/

    Reply
  2. Ferna says:

    Ah Paris! This is one of the reason why I learn the French language hehehehe. Great story though. Yes, I so agree with the app I used it when I went to countries with no English like In Myanmar, people don’t speak English and the app helped me all the way too especially that their internet is so sloowww too

    Reply
  3. Ann says:

    Great advice. Travellers MUST be willing to learn a few keywords and phrases — it’s just rude not to try, and then to expect the residents to speak your language — and be angry at them when they do not.

    At minimum, I always buy a phrasebook and get a translation app on my phone. At maximum, for countries like Italy that I intend to visit multiple times, I’ve gotten the Rosetta Stone course, which I love.

    Reply
  4. Milijana WorldTravelConnector says:

    Agree with you on learning few basic words.
    It’s not only a matter of being able to communicate easily, but also being respectful of other cultures and languages.
    And on travels, giving love and respect in such way is always reciprocated.

    Reply
  5. Andi says:

    I’ve always found your suggestion – learning a few key words ahead – really goes a long way and I’ve always had good luck. People appreciate making an effort.

    Reply
  6. SherianneKay says:

    I wasn’t prepared and had a horrible time trying to communicate in Paris. I even cursed at someone and said ‘I bet you can understand that’ not a proud American moment for sure ☹ I do a much better job researching transportation systems since that trip and Google translate is a must!

    Reply
  7. Fiona Maclean says:

    so many people don’t bother trying to learn the basic key phrases. I do find it is much appreciated when you do. And the language apps are a godsend sometimes when you are looking for directions!

    Reply
  8. Medha Verma says:

    I completely agree with learning the key phrases of a language before going to the country and its all the more helpful in places where not too many people speak English. I do remember struggling a little in Paris as well though I did not have any language or interaction issues with the locals in the rest of France. And yeah, translations apps such as that of Google are extremely helpful – that’s what I used to interact with people in Japan! And finally, the sign language always helps 😉

    Reply
  9. Christina says:

    There are some useful tips here. Learning a few phrases in a foreign language is fun and rewarding. It’s part of what makes travelling to foreign countries so exciting.

    Reply
  10. Carolina Colborn says:

    I love it that Spanish is easy for us to get by because Spain colonized the Philippines for 300 years and the language trickled into Tagalog. I also took 4 years of French in HS so I can get by. And my husband took some years of German so he can get by. So reviewing a few phrases before going usually does it for us. And then there are the translation apps.

    Reply

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