Do you get stuck on how to travel when you don’t speak the language? For many people–especially when starting out–it can be a deal-breaker. They end up only going to places where they communicate in their native tongue. Even worse, they don’t go at all.
Think about this: In 2015, 1.2 billion people from all over the globe traveled outside their own country for at least one night. You can be sure they weren’t all multi-lingual. If they can do it, so can you.
The benefits of travel when you don’t speak the language
Benefits? How can there be an upside of not understanding or being understood? Ah, but there are. We’re put into a position of having to fully engage in the moment, using expressions and gestures to communicate. And we have to trust strangers…which means we have to be vulnerable. That makes us open to new experiences.
Maria Thomas wrote, “A language you don’t understand reminds you how vulnerable you are. We discover that it is precisely this vulnerability which connects us with one another—a good enough reason to travel if nothing else.”
As a native English speaker, I will also argue that not knowing the language gives me a sense of what others must feel when they visit my country. It’s a humbling experience.
Humility aside, how do we actually navigate in a foreign country?
Thanks to old-fashioned good sense, with a smattering of modern technology, it’s really not hard to travel when you don’t speak the language. I learned this when I went to Turkey. Certain I would starve unless I was fluent, I bought the Rosetta Stone language lessons. And then they sat, after a few feeble attempts to learn Turkish. It was just too hard. But guess what? I did just fine.
Since that trip a decade ago, there has been a surge of products to help even the most timid traveler. Let’s look at a few ways to build your confidence and get you out into the world.
- Learn a few words. This is pure common sense. Get a phrase book and make a list of the basics: “Hello, thank you, good-bye, excuse me.” Add “Where is____?”(the toilet, restaurant, bar, metro, etc.) Travel expert Samantha Brown suggests using, “I don’t speak______.” rather than “Do you speak English?” She wisely counsels that expecting others to speak English is both awkward for the other person, as well as condescending.
- Use your face and hands. Ever play Charades? Those skills will be handy during foreign travel. I find that gestures and expressions come naturally, and that others respond in kind. Be smart and check your destination for nonverbals which don’t “translate” in other countries, such as smiling too much, blowing your nose in public, or nodding “yes,” which can really mean “no” in some places.
- Download Google Translate. This app is a gem. Not a perfect gem, but great for translating written language and looking for phrases. The New York Times did a nice article about choosing an app for your smartphone. The ability to look things up on the go is a game-changer. Want to learn how to pronounce? YouTube has guides for every language.
- Hire a local guide. Surprisingly affordable…and priceless for understanding your new destination. Tours By Locals has over 2600 guides in 153 countries…and counting. The price depends on where you are; naturally, it’s going to cost more in Paris than in Sofia. A local travel agent can also help you find a local guide or tour that speaks your language.
- Plan, plan, plan. If you’re nervous–especially the first few times–do yourself a favor and overplay. Get the app, make a list, hire a guide…heck, write phrases on your arm. All that said, expect to make mistakes. Because you will…and let those goofs become a fun part of your travel memories.
Sometimes the things we worry about the most become the easiest to deal with. Remember that people all over the world are traveling to places where they don’t speak the language. Embrace the experience–and go join them!
Need more advice to get you going?