When You Don’t Speak the Language – A Survival Guide

For some people, one of the most intimidating things about travel to a foreign country is fear of how they’re going to get along when they don’t speak the language.

This is not irrational. Trying to get along when no one understands you can be challenging – but it can be a fun challenge if you look at it right. It’s like working out a puzzle.

The good news is that there are a lot of ways to make yourself understood, even when you don’t speak the language. You can survive the language barrier.

Most places we’ve visited have been very kind and patient while we’ve learned the essential words. In fact, making the effort to learn, even if you don’t start until you arrive, usually endears you to people.

Only a few places has it been harder than it needed to be to get along without the language, but we still got along.

Not knowing the language should NOT prevent you from traveling anywhere. Just go – you’ll figure it out.

Use the following strategies and you’ll do fine. They’ve worked for us time and time again. They’ll work for you.

Since I originally wrote this article, I’ve now done a video podcast based on it. There are some additional language-based travel stories in the podcast as well.

If you’d like to subscribe, the podcast is available on most major podcast platforms, like Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Amazon Music, in addition to YouTube and YouTube Music.

Use a Translator App – Google Translate

While there are other translation apps available, some free, some not, Google Translate gets the best all-around marks from us. It also has the advantage that it is free, and most people have a decent idea of how to use it.

By the way, we’ve created a very thorough tutorial video of how to use Google Translate. We take you through basic, intermediate and advanced skills as well as give you tips and demonstrations for using it in real travel situations. You can watch it at the end of this section or catch it directly on YouTube here. Don’t forget to subscribe.

You may end up in a love-hate relationship with Google Translate but used with the right attitude, it can solve a lot of problems, and give you a lot of laughs.

Using a Translation App Using Google Translate

In some countries, like China, you’ll find people go to the translator quickly and will be happy passing the phone back and forth to facilitate the conversation. In other places, like Benin and Vietnam, the translator gets used as a last resort.

Then there are some countries, like Ghana, where the first languages are tribal, and the second language is English. Google Translate has a lot of languages available, but not all of them. We think you’ll be impressed with the list, though.

While Google Translate does have a conversation option, most people we’ve found prefer the back-and-forth method. I think this partly comes from experience with bad translations. In conversation mode, there’s no chance to fix or change things if the app starts getting it wrong.

Input Options on Google Translate

Let’s look at the main input styles for Google Translate.

  • Type it – Just like it sounds. Use your device’s on-screen keyboard to type in what you want translated.
  • Write it – Use your finger, or a stylus, to write directly on the screen.
  • Voice – Speak the words or sentences you want translated.
  • Conversation – Input the two languages you want to converse in and Google Translate will detect the language being spoke and translate in real time…more or less. This is one of the less accurate methods and requires you to be online.
  • Copy/Paste – Copy and paste text from a different app or page and let the translator do its job. This is great for staying in touch with friends you made where you didn’t speak each other’s’ language, but want to stay in touch via What’sApp or other chat option.
  • Camera – Access the camera through Google Translate and point it at some text. Theoretically it will read and translate in real time. Depending on the language, this input option can create some of the most hilariously bad translations that will leave you scratching your head for days – but sometimes it works well enough to help you figure something out.

Super Travel Tip: Remember, you don’t know what Google Translate is telling the other person. So it could be very wrong, and the person isn’t understanding, and you might be getting frustrated, not realizing why they’re not understanding. While you might be saying things clearly, Google Translate may not. Pay attention to their reaction to see if what the translator said made sense to them.

For a more detailed look at what Google Translate can do, check out our in-depth tutorial. Or you can save it to watch later – you know, while you finish reading this post.

Using Google Translate – In-depth Video Tutorial

Go here for the full Google Translate for Travel – Tutorial

Use Gesture, Expression and Mime

When language is no longer available to you, you start to realize how many other ways you can communicate. In fact, humans use non-verbal communication a huge percentage of the time.

Act It Out - Mime When You Don't Speak the Language
Don’t Be Shy – Act It Out

Pointing and gesturing comes naturally. It’s something you might do from down the aisle in a crowded grocery store, or at a club where the music is so loud conversation is impossible.

Of course the standard warning is to make sure you don’t use any offensive hand gestures. In certain countries the OK symbol is offensive, or maybe it’s the thumbs up that will garner unfriendly looks. Take a few moments to learn about the culture you’re visiting before you get there.

However, beyond the standard gestures, another way to get your meaning across is to go full on mime. Yes, be willing to play charades and act out what it is you need or are trying to convey.

You want something to drink? Pretend to hold a bottle and drink. Need some towels? Act out drying yourself off. Price too high? Make a sour face and wave your hands in rejection, or gesture downward indicating you want a lower price.

Whatever you’re trying to convey, keep the concept as simple and straightforward as possible.

This One Never Fails

There’s one gesture that works everywhere we’ve been, without fail, and you can do it from across the room. If you’re in a restaurant, once you have the attention of the waiter, hold one hand out, palm toward you and with the other hand pretend to write on that hand like a piece of paper – or like signing for a bill. So far, everyone, from Thailand to Ghana, has understood that as asking for the check.

Be creative, and don’t be afraid to be silly. It’s perfectly okay if everyone laughs. In fact, it can make a possibly tense situation far better. Give people a good laugh and they’re usually happy to help you.

Cut to the Chase – Use Pictures

Imagine that something on your luggage breaks, a wheel, the zipper, whatever – you need to replace it and you need to find out where the best place to get luggage is.

When you go to ask at the front desk of the hotel, all the mime and gesture isn’t getting the point across. So, what do you do?

Show them a picture.

Call it up on your smart phone. Ask your phone to show you a picture of luggage and then show it to whomever you’re asking for advice. Of course, this goes for any item you need to buy, or are trying to find.

Drawing a picture can work, too. This assumes you can find a pen and paper, but it’s definitely a viable alternative.

Depending on what you’re asking, going straight to a picture might save a lot of time and effort.

Budget Travel Tip: Often the staff at a hotel will automatically send you to the mall if you need to do any shopping, because it’s convenient. This is usually the most expensive option. Don’t hesitate to ask if there’s somewhere like a local market, or a Big C (like Target in SEA), that you can get the item cheaper. Hotel staff will know. To save money, shop where the locals do.

Structuring Your Sentences

Have you ever tried to speak another language? Maybe you had a class in high school. So you know that even getting to the point where you can read a children’s book takes time, and effort.

When you’re speaking to someone who’s learning English as a second language, keep this in mind.

Use simple sentence structure and vocabulary.

Resist the urge to over-explain, or address more than one concept at a time. If the toilet is clogged, don’t explain about the chili dogs you had for lunch and your sensitive stomach and the pickles and the caramel corn and, and, and… Just say, “The toilet is broken.”

If you do need to discuss more than one thing, address each topic separately. Make sure to indicate when you change subjects. Use a hand gesture to ‘cut and push away’ one topic before you start another.

This ties in with our next tip.

Confused Person Needs Better Translation
Be as Clear and Concise as Possible

Slow Down Your Speech and Enunciate

Being from LA, Tim and I speak a little Spanish. He learned his on the street and in the back room, I learned mine in a classroom.

In other words, he knows enough Spanish to get us into trouble. I know enough to get us out.

However, put us in front of a TV news broadcast in Spanish and we’re lucky to grab one word out of every fifty.

As humans speaking any language, we speak quickly and run words together. These things make it very difficult for someone learning the language to keep up with us.

You don’t need to speak louder, or embarrassingly slow, but do make sure you speak clearly and slow down a little bit. Try to make individual words easier for them to recognize. Sometimes that’s all the help someone needs for the conversation to go smoothly.

Pay Attention: These last two tactics are easy to forget the moment you sense someone speaks a decent level of English. You speed back up to normal and start using complex sentences, forgetting that they might not be that fluent. Pay attention to how your message is being received. If it’s not clear, slow down and simplify.

Find Alternate Words

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Unknown – not actually Einstein.

If the phrase or word you’re using isn’t making any sense to the person you’re talking to, try something else.

Due to colonialism, a lot of British phrases are embedded into the version of English that various countries speak. If you’re not sure what alternate phrase to use, try going British.

You don’t get food to go. You get takeaway.

You don’t get fries with your burger, you get chips.

You don’t take the elevator to your floor, you take the lift.

Sometimes it’s not British-isms, though. Sometimes you’re just using a word the person isn’t familiar with. Find a different word, or add mime to your words.

Don’t keep hammering at the same phrase over and over.

I remember we were talking to someone in Thailand and they didn’t know what a vacuum cleaner was. It took us a minute to realize, they don’t use carpet. They have no reason to have concept of a vacuum cleaner.

Don’t worry, whether you realize it or not, they have at least as many things you don’t have a concept for either.

Funny Travel Note: We got a good laugh from a group of young people in Thailand when we asked if the nearby 7-11 had an ATM. They thought that was hilarious. If they only knew…

Language Learning Programs

Of course, if you have the time and brainy to learn a bit of the language before your trip, that’s awesome. Even if you only pick up a few phrases, people will appreciate the effort.

Duolingo is a great quickie app to learn some words and phrases. One of the best things is that it’s free. One of the downsides is that it nags you a little bit if you step away from it for a while. Some people do well with reminders, some of us get annoyed.

Babbel isn’t free, but it’s very affordable and focused on learning a more conversational version of the language right off. This technique might serve you better in an environment where you’ll be using the language as soon as you arrive. Overall, in travel situations, practical conversation is better than textbook language learning.

Don’t let fear of making a mistake stop you from trying to speak the language. Usually people appreciate any effort you make to speak their language, even if you mangle the words a bit.

Other Communication Tips

Phrase Book vs Cheat Sheet

Don’t like using a smart phone, or worried about it running out of battery?

We recommend setting up a cheat sheet with the vital phrases you foresee needing. Where is the bathroom? I need a taxi. How do I get to the beach?

Make the cheat sheet a size that you can fit in your pocket, purse or wallet. You may only need it occasionally when your mime and gesture efforts fall short.

It’s the infrequency of use that has us liking this idea over a phrase book or pocket dictionary. It’s more compact and gives you less bulk to carry, especially if it’s only your back-up system.

Google Maps or Maps.me

Both of these apps allow you to download offline maps. This is particularly helpful if you’re out and about and internet connection is poor.

If you need to go somewhere, you might be able to show someone on the map. Or at least you can guide your taxi driver to your destination. Do NOT assume your taxi or tuk-tuk driver will be able to read a map. We’ve been amazed at the number of drivers that don’t have a clue how to use a map app. Don’t be shy about guiding them.

On the other hand, if someone is trying to tell you how to get somewhere or giving you a destination (like where to find that replacement suitcase you need), don’t hesitate to hand over your phone, if they seem tech savvy, so they can locate it on the map for you.

Once they locate the place you’re looking for, don’t forget to bookmark it.

Also, set your hotel as Home in whatever map app you use. This goes for Uber, Grab and Lyft as well.

Super Travel Tip: Always carry a card (or two) from your hotel. It gives you something to hand to cab drivers when you’re ready to head home for the night. This is especially important in countries with non-Roman alphabets where it may be harder for you to describe where your hotel is.

Use the Calculator for Numbers

Use a Calculator to Translate Numbers

You want to know how much to pay, but the cashier doesn’t speak English, and you haven’t learned the numbers in the local language yet.

Simple – use the calculator on your phone.

I did this in the backroads of Mauritania, dealing with an old woman selling bead necklaces. I held out the calculator and she typed in the price. Sometimes it takes a moment for people less than familiar with technology to get it, but they figure this one out pretty quick.

You can also use this as a bargaining tool, going back and forth until you can agree on a price.

Another time this comes in handy is when you’re somewhere that has a lot of zeros on its money. Something like $1 = 20,000 Dong. Sometimes you want to make sure the price you’re thinking is based on the right number of zeros.

Have a Convert App for Using the Metric System

Obviously this is for our US readers. If you’re not familiar with the metric system, having an app that does the converting for you will come in very handy.

When you’re debating walking to the beach, or getting a cab, and someone tells you it’s only half a kilometer, it’s good to know that’s only a third of a mile.

Or, if you end up having to go to the doctor and they want to know your height and weight, you can convert it for them.

Or when you want to understand the speed limit if you’re driving.

NEVER expect anyone to be prepared to convert the US measuring system for you. Everyone else on the planet uses the metric system and they have no reason to learn our screwy ways.

The Absolute Most Important Thing for When You Don’t Speak the Language

Laughing is the Best Strategy When You Don't Speak the Language

Be prepared to laugh.

When things go wrong, or you’re having trouble getting your point across, make your default response laughter. If you laugh, they’ll laugh and it will give everyone the space to breathe, reset and try again.

Communicating when neither party speaks the other’s language can be challenging, but it can be fun and rewarding, too. Laughing together forms a bond with people and can lay the groundwork for making new friends.

Our final advice for communicating when you don’t speak the language is this:

Feel victorious when it goes right, and laugh when it goes wrong.

Final Words

There you have it, all of our best advice for getting along in places where you don’t speak the language.

What’s your experience been? What are your favorite language work-around tips? Share them in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

Don’t forget to watch our the Google Translate Tutorial Video above so you can get the most out of the app.

You can check out ALL of our Travel Tips and Tutorials. We have everything from One-Minute Travel Tips to Quick Instructionals, to In-Depth Tutorials – all coming from our personal travel experience.

Happy Translating and Happy Travels!

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Team Hazard

Old, fat and disabled and traveling the world anyway. Join Trina and Tim as they wander around the planet bringing you honest stories about the people and places they encounter.

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  • Google Translator is my savior most of the time. On my last visit to Spain, my Airbnb host didn’t speak the language, so we communicated through the app.

  • This is such a useful post! I think the biggest challenges about travel is not knowing the language and there’s always the expectation that everyone speaks English. Knowing how to adapt to language barriers is a very useful skill that takes time to develop but it’s worth it in the end.

  • These are great tips! I haven’t traveled anywhere where I don’t know the language, but I will be coming back to this post whenever I do!

  • What great tips! I never would have thought to use pictures to explain what I was looking for. Definitely going to check out IconSpeak for something to take along on my next trip.

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