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 primary 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 and Not Speaking the Language
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. Here are the apps that I recommend using if you are traveling to a country where you do not speak the language.
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:
- Good morning
- Thank you
- Can I have? (or Can I take?)
- 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.
Danielle is a travel finance strategist, author, speaker and podcaster. She paid off $63,000 of student loan debt in 4 years, bought a house at 27 and has traveled to 26 countries. She refuses to let her financial responsibilities hold her back from living life on her own terms.