Traveling alone when you don’t speak the language can be one of the most isolating experiences in your life. If you let it. Not being able to communicate can not only be frustrating, but sometimes it can even be a bit scary. But don’t let a fear of not speaking the language keep you from traveling and potentially having one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.
Unless you are incredibly smart you won’t learn the language of every country you visit but that shouldn’t hold you back from travel. It is generally advised that first time travellers stick to English speaking countries or at least tourist areas where English will be spoken. After all, having the ability to communicate is how you will meet your basic needs of food, water and shelter but once you feel ready to venture further afield here are some ways to combat the language obstacle:
1. Accept that you won’t learn every language of every country you visit but try to learn a few basic words and phrases. Even just saying hello and thank you in a different language shows interest and respect for their culture. From personal experience the words for water, beer and bathroom are just as important.
2. Smile. It goes a long way to breaking the barriers between humans and a lot can be conveyed with a smile. Basic human emotions are the same the world over and conveyed the same way so smile.
3. Point and play charades. I wouldn’t consider myself to be an overly animated talker until I travel. Then I become a master at using my hands to try to convey what I am trying to ask. It often ends in laughter and smiles all round as everyone enjoys the show. Just be aware of offensive hand movements in certain countries as a single finger point can mean something different to a 4 fingered point.
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Hard advice and easier said than done sometimes, especially when you are feeling vulnerable, but try to laugh at yourself. Making weird animal sounds when trying to find out what animal you’re eating and acting strange would seem funny to us in our country as well so try to have fun with it.
5. Don’t yell. I know it’s tempting to get frustrated and start speaking louder but the miscommunication is not because the other person is deaf, it’s because they don’t speak your language. Yelling, “I want a room with an ensuite”, still won’t get you the ensuite.
6. Use apps like google translate. These generally get a bad name and I’ll admit they have their limitations but they can prove useful. Have a few phrases already saved for offline use and refer back to them periodically to refresh your memory.
7. An old school version to the above point but buy a phrase book. Not only is this handy in non-wifi areas where translator apps might not work but if they are not understanding your pronunciation of something you can show them so they can read it themselves.
8. Use the hotel staff. Generally speaking the hotel staff will have a few words of English or have the most patience to wait until you finish butchering the pronunciation and then correct you. If they don’t then go to the most touristy section of wherever you are and wait. Before long you will be approached by someone speaking a few words of English and you can learn from them.
9. Take a tour. Not a full country tour where you are herded around like cattle and protected from the locals but just a day tour where the guide can translate for you and you can ask questions about culture and customs.
10. Be prepared to draw. Whether on a notepad or in the dirt with a stick, images are universal and understood the world over.
11. Like images and emotions, numbers are universal. When buying something be prepared to use the calculator app on your phone or hold up the respective number of fingers to how many you want to buy. And have them write down the total cost so there’s no confusion in how much you need to pay.
Remember that simple hand gestures, miming, drawing, and pointing go a long way towards breaking through the language barrier. Don’t let a fear of not speaking the language hold you back and instead travel with a bit of humility and a lot of respect. Just think of it as another part of the journey, and enjoy the ride.