Tavel 103: How to Travel Abroad Without Speaking the Language
Updated: Aug 18, 2019
When I look at my traveling bucket list, there are a lot of places I'd like to visit that don't speak my language, English; Argentina, Madagascar, Thailand, the list goes on and on. While I'm dying to visit these places, traveling outside the bounds of English can be intimidating. How to I get from the airport to my hotel if I can't read any of the signs or talk to a cab driver? How will I order at a restaurant if I don't speak the language and can't read the menu? What if I get lost or have a question when I'm shopping? All of these are legitimate questions and concerns, which is why I've created a short guide to help make traveling outside your language (and comfort) zone seem more do-able.
#1 Think about where you're traveling
If you're traveling to Paris, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, odds are you're going to find a lot of multi-language speakers (and menus). However, if you go to the French country-side, where there aren't a lot of international visitors, it will be pretty hard to find someone who speaks your language. The same goes for most countries. Places with a lot of tourists or where tourism is a big part of the economy will have a lot more English speakers and steps in place to help non-native speakers get around while places that don't receive a lot of travelers won't. So if this is your first trip outside your language or you are nervous about being someplace where you don't understand what's being said, consider visiting a tourist-friendly place like Paris, Rome, or Jamaica.
#2 Get Google Translate on your phone
Google translate is a life-saver! It let's you download a whole language so you can translate without wifi by either typing in words or taking a picture of whatever you need translated. Unsure what's on the menu? Take a photo and translate it! Local delicacies might not have an English counter-part, but you can always google those to see what you're getting into. Along with menus, Google Translate is also really helpful for maps, roadsigns, and getting you out of tricky situations when the other steps aren't working.
#3 Prepare for your trip and learn some basics
No matter the country, everyone loves to see tourists making an effort. You don't have to have great pronunciation or know enough to have a conversation, but if you learn to say please and thank you, people will appreciate it. Plus, it will make you feel a little less like a language-outsider.
I like to use the language-learning app DuoLingo for a bit before going somewhere new. It has classes that teach the basics, which is really all you need if unless you're going somewhere really off the beaten path. If you don't want to download an app, you can also look up videos of people ordering food or asking a question you think you'll need to ask a lot so brief interactions with the locals seem less daunting.
#4 Think about how often you need to speak at home
Imagine you need to pick up a few things at the store while on your trip. This can seem scary since you don't speak the language, but take a second to think about how much you need language at the store back home. Sure it is nice to read about sales and ask the cashier how's it going, but those are necessary. You really just need to identify the item you want to buy, which you can usually do by looking at it, bring it to the counter, and know the correct price, which shows up in numbers on a screen somewhere. No language needed!
Let's try another example, you want to buy some pastries at a bakery. At home, you would ask for a specific number and know the name of the baked good. You can't do that if you don't speak any of the language, but you can point to the pastry you want and hold up the number three. It gets the same point across without having to say anything, except maybe please and thank you!
#5 Accept that you won't understand everything
While you might want to know everything be said around you, unless you truly learn the language, that will never be the case. There will be times you're not completely sure what's going on or times that you don't have a concrete answer to your question. You'll just need to be flexible and roll with the punches. When I was in Portugal, we stopped at a small cafe for something to eat. The woman behind the counter spoke a little English, but when we asked what was in the rolls she had, she told us they had "little meat." She didn't know how to say the type of meat in English and we didn't know how to say any types of meat in Portuguese, so we just had to accept that we'd never know what kind of meat was in the roll and eat it anyways. A little mystery never killed anyone!
Hopefully these quick tips will make you add another country to your bucket list or help you navigate somewhere you already book tickets to. While there will still be situations you wish you knew more, I think that you can travel a lot father than you think without knowing the language. Good luck and happy travels!