So you’ve figured out where you want to go, when you’re going and who you’re going with. Your flights are booked, your bags are packed, you have a list of sights to see and activities to do. Everything has focused on your trip… but what happens when you need to chat to the locals when you arrive, and you don’t know the language?

Here are 9 steps to overcoming language barriers while traveling

1. Do Your Homework

Before you board the plane, you should know the official language(s) of the country you’re visiting. When you travel to countries with more than one official language, be mindful of the primary language based on the cities or towns you plan to visit.

2. Know a Few, Important Key Phrases in the Local Language

It’s always a good idea to know a few basic words ahead of arriving in another country – even in areas where English is generally widely understood or spoken. I always try to at least know how to say words like “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you”.

*Pro tip:  Always, always, ALWAYS know how to say, “Do you speak English?” in the local language. Ask this question first and wait for a response before accosting someone with any other questions.

3. Speak Slowly and Clearly

If you’re lucky enough to find someone who speaks English, always speak slowly and clearly using basic vocabulary. Try not to use slang and never, ever speak louder in an attempt to overcome language barriers. This is a HUGE turn off to locals.

4. Use Technology

The good news about our technologically advanced society is that anything and everything we’d ever want to know is at our fingertips on our smartphones. The bad news is that connectivity can be unreliable or non-existent in parts of the world.

Lucky for you, you can download Google Translate, go to settings, choose offline translation, and select the languages of your choice for on the go, offline use.

5. Listen and Learn 

It’s a good idea to listen to how people communicate to identify the words and phrases of a country. As you observe people communicate and also get involved in conversations, don’t be afraid to clarify the words, to help with building your own vocabulary. The more you know, the easier communicating will become as the days go by.

6. Keep It Simple

Think about the main words that you are conveying when you are communicating with someone – they are looking just as much for the clues as you to string together the sentence. To get your point across, you may want to take shortcuts in how you communicate, such as saying “photo?” rather than “can I take a photo?” may suffice.

7. Use Your Hands

Speaking is just one way to communicate. Instead of verbally communicating with language barriers, you can use hand motions and body language instead. The simplest way to do this is to point at something you want.

In many situations, you’ll need to combine a few words with your hand movements to help others understand what you are asking or saying.

As a solo traveler, this is something I practice quite often – particularly when asking a stranger to take a picture for me.

8. Write It Down

If someone is telling you something, for example, giving you a name or a street address, and you can’t quite make it out, ask them to write it down. You may be able to better understand and it gives you the option to look it up yourself.

This is ESSENTIAL. Sounds of words may not always be what you think they are, but if they are written down, you’ll have a much better chance of finding what it is you’re looking for.

9. Be Ready To Laugh

When you say something wrong or completely mispronounce something, it’s okay to laugh! I have shared many great laughs with people I just met because I realize I said something very wrong, or even just that what I’m saying sounds pretty awful. There’s no better way to make a connection with someone than to be real and to laugh. Who doesn’t appreciate that?


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