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How to Communicate When People Don’t Speak Your Language

Tourists couple asking tuk tuk native taxi driver for direction
Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Traveling to a country you’ve never been to before can be as exciting as it can be intimidating, especially if you don’t speak the language.

Despite English being widely spoken, there’s always a chance of encountering tricky situations where the locals can’t understand you and Wi-Fi is not available, but that shouldn’t stop you from exploring the globe. The following tips will help you communicate next time you go traveling somewhere with a foreign language. 

Know The Basics

It’s part of the general etiquette to learn a few essential words in the language of the country you’re visiting. Words like hello, thank you, please, and help will show the locals your appreciation for being there.

They’re simple words you’ll hear over and over again during your trip, making it that much easier for you to learn and remember. It’s the kind of effort any savvy traveler would make: it goes a long way with the people you interact with, and it could even save you from an inconvenience. 

Tip: Did you know you can create a Google Sheet that automatically translates words for you? It’s a great way to create your own “phrasebook” of standard translations you might need.

Download The Right Apps

google translate home page

While the list of translation apps on the market is seemingly endless, Google Translate (available for iOS and Android) remains a staple on any globetrotter’s phone. Not only is the app free, but you can use it online and offline. The translation options it offers qualify it as a real lifesaver. In fact, by just pointing the camera at a text (could be on paper, a sign, or a plaque) you get an instant translation instead of the original words.

Moreover, Google Translate has a conversation mode that allows you to communicate with someone in a different language: simply talk into your phone, and the app will automatically translate it for the other person. This can be particularly helpful when the local alphabet is different from yours or if the pronunciation is too difficult even to make an attempt at saying something. 

Whatever app you choose make sure it’s available to use offline and that it will provide you with all the help you might need. 

Get Help In Writing

You can ask the concierge at your hotel, the receptionist at your hostel, or even a local you might end up befriending along the way. Getting someone to write standard phrases for you to carry around with you is an easy way to save time trying to get your message across. Think of what you might need to say or ask on any given day, such as the location of the nearest hospital, supermarket, or the police station, and get the names or questions written on paper. If you have allergies or dietary restrictions, get that in writing too so you can show it whenever necessary. 

Ask to have the names and address of the places you’re going to so you can show it to your taxi driver as they might not always understand where you’re trying to get to. Lastly, don’t forget to get your accommodation’s or the concierge’s business card to make sure you always find your way back there. 

Carry Pen And Paper

This might feel like an old way of doing things, but a simple pen/pencil and a piece of paper can help you communicate when words fail. You can write words or names if you know how to spell them or you can try to draw a picture, a sign or a symbol and hope for the best. It’s a cheap but effective way of getting what you need. 

Be A Mime

local guide in Lisbon gesturing to tourists
franz12/Shutterstock

If all else fails, your hands and face shall come to your rescue. Just like a game of Charades, you can attempt to act out whatever you’re trying to say. You can point, make facial expressions, or nod, just as long as you’re aware of the local cultural customs since specific common gestures can sometimes mean something completely different or even be offensive in certain countries.

For instance, nodding your head doesn’t always mean ‘yes’ just like shaking your head doesn’t always mean ‘no.’ Similarly, pointing with your finger or palm at someone is a big no-no in some cultures. A polite gesture that’s universally understood as a thank you or as a way to pay your respect to the person you’re talking to is the Namaste sign—bring your palms together by your chest with the fingers pointing upwards and do a little bow.

Bring Two Maps

Because electronics can sometimes die on us, it’s a good idea to carry a map of the place you’re at to find your way around. Though the instinct would be to get one in your mother tongue, carrying a map with names written in the local language can often be more helpful. A taxi driver might not know the exact place you’re going to, but he could get an idea by spotting the nearby locations on the map. On the other hand, locals might not be too familiar with the layout of the city, but reading the names of places might let them understand what you’re looking for and tell you which way to go. 

Communicating with people who don’t speak your language can be stressful at times, making us feel frustrated and speak louder than we should. But that’s precisely when we should remember that patience is a virtue worth having. Whether it’s with your words, drawings, or body language, trust that you will eventually get your message across and succeed in getting what you need. Nothing a bit of extra time and a smile can’t fix. 

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »

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