Traveling and not speaking the language

languageFirst time travelers share a lot of the same concerns. The top of the list for many people is about language barriers in other countries. How hard is it to travel there if you don’t speak the language? Do people speak English there?

While this concern is probably more prevalent for Americans who have for the most part lived their lives in a massive country where everyone speaks the same language, I imagine that folks everywhere share some of the same concern.

Travelers who do not speak a word of English would have a very hard time traveling in the US. People here generally do not speak any other languages and have less experience encountering folks who don’t share their language, making it tougher on travelers.

By and large, I am happy to report, this is not the case in most of the rest of the world. English speakers can take comfort in the fact that their language is currently the most universal language on earth. During my round-the-world trip and on previous travels, I have never encountered a single situation in which language barriers led to any major concern. Nearly everywhere the people involved in the tourist industry will speak enough English to communicate the basics and in many places local English fluency will surprise you.

That is not to say that I haven’t been to places and in situations where I shared absolutely no common language with anyone around me, it’s just to say that it’s not as much of a problem as you might think.

As a traveler I love these situations because they require creativity and problem solving. How do you communicate with someone you cannot speak to?

The possibilities are endless, though here are a few tricks I have learned along the way:

1. Emotions can be conveyed without a word

You do not need to say anything to tell someone you are happy or sick or worried or angry. Simple gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice can do this for you. Be expressive and people will understand. Of course this won’t help if you are trying to initiate a political debate, but will probably do fine to tell someone you are happy for their help.

2. Talk with your hands and use props

Even if someone doesn’t understand a word that comes out of your mouth, talking slowly and using gestures for: you, me, together, go, run, drive, eat, sleep, etc. will also take you far. When your hands aren’t enough feel free to use nearby objects. Point to the fork and hold up two fingers “May I have another fork?” When all else fails, ham it up! I once moo-ed to order beef. It took my waiter a minute to understand and when it hit him he laughed and laughed and I got the plate of beef I was after.

3. Write it down

When props and gestures fail always have a pen and paper at your disposal. This can be especially helpful for communicating the name of a destination that is difficult for you to pronounce or the number of the bus you are looking for. Walk around with the number 55 written on a piece of paper, show people at the bus station and they will easily point you to where bus number 55 stops. Easy as that. For more elaborate communication brush up on your Pictionary skills and see what unfolds. With the right attitude people will find the experience novel and fun and next thing you know you and the guy at the news stand might draw the next Mona Lisa together while trying to inquire about the location of the nearest bathroom.

4. Use a Picture Dictionary

There is a fantastic and cheap little book called “point it” that has done all of the hard work for you. It is a pint-sized collection of pictures of any object the traveler may need or need to communicate. Looking for pork, not beef? Point to the picture of the pig. Looking for a room with two single beds, not one double bed? Point to the picture of the single beds. Need a new pair of underwear? Well, they have a picture of that too. Point it is a great resource to have with you if you are traveling where few people speak your language. It’s fun to use, will make people laugh and has some awesome pictures that look straight out of 1985! You can get point it online here.

One last piece of advice: learn how to thank people in their local language. Nothing is better than receiving thanks for help given. Even if it is horrendously pronounced, if the intention behind it is genuine then it will be well received. So there you have it. Worry about language barriers no more! Get out there and enjoy your travels!

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