You’ve always gotten by with your high school French or Spanish overseas, but what if you’re in a place so remote no one speaks anything but the local language and you haven’t taken the time to learn more than “hello” and “thank you”?
English is a common second language in many countries, particularly those that see lots of tourists or international businesspeople. But go off the beaten track, and English speakers aren’t as easy to find. In the jungles of Ecuador, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who spoke anything other than Spanish. What if you’re in rural China or Russia, or even a major city in Asia like Tokyo that has very few signs in English?
Below are nine tips that can help.
1. Don’t panic.
Logic and composure are your best friends. You might fret if it’s getting late and you can’t find an ATM or your hotel. Don’t worry; eventually, someone will help. Stay positive.
2. Write it down.
Before you leave for the day, ask the front desk or concierge to write down the name of your hotel in the local language, or get a business card with the hotel’s details on it. That way if you get lost, anyone can point you in the right direction, and a taxi (your safest bet at night) will return you to the front door in a heartbeat.
3. Get an app.
If you’ll be using your smartphone abroad, download a translation app. Our favorite is Google Translate, which covers dozens of languages. You can have a local speak into the phone or point your camera at written text, and the app will translate it into English for you. The app will work offline if there’s no 4G or Wi-Fi available. It’s free for iPhone and Android.
4. Buy a phrasebook.
Remember that your smartphone may not work everywhere in the world–and if your battery dies, you’ll need a backup plan. If you’re headed to a place where power is limited and English speakers are hard to find, it’s worth investing in a phrasebook. Even if you can’t pronounce the words, you can show a local the page of the book with the phrase you’re trying to convey. Many guidebooks also have a list of common words if you don’t want to carry a separate phrasebook.
5. Go to a hotel.
Wherever you are, look for the nearest lodging, preferably a luxury or business hotel (which will be most accustomed to international guests). Hotels almost always have a person on staff that can speak English or will find someone for you who can. In the worst case, you can rest in the lobby and gather your thoughts.
6. Find a tourist office.
As with hotels, tourist offices are used to interacting with international visitors and will likely have multilingual people on staff.
7. Look for familiar franchises.
Editor Dori Saltzman offers an unexpected tip: “Go to McDonald’s or another chain that you recognize from home. Because these places attract Americans, the staff often will know a little English–and even if they don’t, some of the diners might.”
8. Look for young people.
Senior Editor Sarah Schlichter recommends reaching out to younger locals: “I’ve found that people in their 20s tend to be more likely to remember the English they studied in school than older folks who haven’t practiced their second language in a few decades.”
9. Draw a picture or sign it out.
Hand gestures, sketches or even just pointing to a map can all get your point across if words fail. Be careful, though; seemingly innocent hand gestures in your own culture could prove offensive elsewhere in the world. We recommend reading up on taboos and hand gestures before your trip at guide.CultureCrossing.net.
The main thing to remember is that people worldwide are generally helpful. Remember your charades and try to act out what you need. If nothing else, it will give the locals a good laugh, and when they are laughing they will be more inclined to help.
What strategies have you tried in a situation when no one spoke your language? Post your suggestions in the comments below.
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–written by Tim Campbell
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.
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