10 Tips for Traveling Where You Don't Speak the Language

Annie Wang is an avid traveler who loves to explore all aspects of a country. She can be found blogging at NerdWallet Travel, which aims to help travelers with all aspects of traveling, from destination tips to money-saving tricks.

Let's face it: Americans are lucky when it comes to travel. English is the most commonly spoken language in the world. But if you like to immerse yourself into local culture or want to head somewhere off the beaten track, speaking English won't cut it. What's a world traveler to do?

Know the basics. This is a good trick even if you're not heading somewhere totally remote. People are much friendlier if you can say "hello", "please" and "thank you" in the local language. Also learn how to say "where's the bathroom?" and "do you speak English?" That way, you definitely know how to get your point across. Other helpful phrases? "Delicious", "I'm lost" and " My name is."

Write down important information. Make sure that you are protected in emergency situations. Write down the address of your lodgings in the local language and the contact information of a local contact (or your traveling buddy) on a sheet of paper. If you get lost, you can whip out the sheet, give it to a taxi driver and be back at the hotel in no time.

Use hand gestures. Hand gestures are almost universally understood. Before you start playing charades however, learn the local meanings of common gestures. In Bulgaria, for example, nodding means no, and shaking your head means yes. Yikes! Search up some local gestures beforehand to make sure you're not insulting your waitress when trying to gesture for water.


Draw pictures. Not very good at charades? Try drawing pictures instead. It's pretty easy to draw some mountains if you want to know where to go hiking. Don't have paper? A stick and some dirt can work. Be careful though—if your drawing skills aren't up to par, someone might send you to a restaurant when you meant to draw temple.

Bring a notepad. I assure you, a notepad is more accessible and versatile than your smart phone. You can draw pictures or write foreign words you can't pronounce. In turn, locals can draw maps and write down recommendations or directions. And best of all, no one has to fiddle with a touch screen.

Carry phrase book and learn as you go. The phrasebook is the easy fallback of travelers everywhere. Bring along a little one, just in case you need to look up that one specific phrase or decipher something on your menu. Memorize the phrases you use the most. Food words are a good bet. Learning "chicken", "beef" and "rice" can go a long way towards puzzling out that menu.

Ask the concierge to help. Afraid of butchering a new language? Ask your concierge or front desk. Most people working in the hotel industry speak some English to better communicate with foreign travelers. Tell them what you want to learn, like how to pronounce a tricky word or to translate a complicated phrase. Save this option for short or confusing phrases during a lull time or they may be too swamped to help you out.

Don't be afraid to strike up conversation. Restaurants, bars and public spaces are easy ways to meet people and immerse yourself into local culture. Memorize some key phrases—your name, where you're from and a question you'd like to ask a local—and start talking.

Exchange lessons with locals. No local friends? Go online and look for language class trades. Many people love to learn English with a native speaker, so ask someone to meet up over coffee and trade language practice. You've just made a new friend who can suggest some local treasures not found in guidebooks.

Take advantage of your smartphone. There are lots of apps to help people in a foreign country. One of the most useful is Quest Visual, which translates text in photos, like street signs or menus. Or try Jibbigo to get an audio translation if you can't communicate with the fruit seller. Ask him to speak into the phone, and it speaks the sentence out loud in English. Then you reply in English, and the app translates that back. Easy as pie.

With all these tools at your disposal, there's no reason to be scared of traveling to a country where you can't speak the language. Put away your pride and throw yourself into the experience. Who knows? You might come back with tons of new friends and an itch to return.

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