What If You Don’t Speak the Language?

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Fears that hold you back are limiting you from experiences more than they are protecting you. I often get questions from people who are worried about traveling to countries where they don’t speak the language. 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.

Communication basics

First, try to learn a few words ahead of time, like please, thank you, hello, good-bye. This will go a long way in showing the locals you’re trying. A phrasebook can help, but remember that you won’t necessarily understand the response you get.

Write down names of cities, the hotel you chose, and any attractions you’re planning on visiting. It helps to show a taxi driver or someone you’re asking directions from if you have it written down since it’s unlikely that you will pronounce it correctly.

fear of not speaking the language - Izmir sign - in Turkish and English

Remember that English is the universal language of travel. Sometimes signs at tourist attractions are even written in both the local language and English. If you are traveling to a destination that is used to dealing with tourists, you will find locals who speak at least a few basic words of English. But when you speak to them, remember to speak slowly and clearly (NOT louder) and use simple vocabulary.

One of the few words I find to be almost universal is “toilet.” In the US people often ask where to find the bathroom or restroom, but that’s not so easily understood for someone whose native language isn’t English. But even in the middle of Southeast Asia, people understand the word toilet.

Knowing a few key words and phrases can go a long way in making yourself understood and understanding others. Search for a travel phrase book for the country you’re visiting.

A big part of communication is in body language

Hand gestures and miming work well. When trying to order food, if you can’t tell what kind of meat something is, moo like a cow, flap your arms like a chicken, swim like a fish. Don’t worry about looking silly, you will be understood and the person selling the food will probably be even more friendly to you.

fear of not speaking the language - Andy pretending to be a monkey

Recently while traveling, my husband and I were looking for toilet paper. When the store clerk didn’t understand, Andy mimed wiping himself. Maybe a bit embarrassing, but he got his point across and the clerk burst out laughing. So instead of letting the fear of not knowing the language take over, just make a game out of it.

Also try drawing. Andy and I were in a taxi in Izmir, Turkey trying to get to the castle, but the driver didn’t know what we were saying. So Andy quickly drew a castle. The driver laughed and nodded, and then brought us to the castle.

Book a tour

If not knowing the language stresses you out, booking a tour might put your mind at ease.

Book a full-length organized tour if you want someone else to take care of all the details. You’ll have someone around nearly every minute who can speak English and the local language, and they can help you out with any concerns. This is also a good way to feel like you have a safety net, and maybe next time you go on a trip, you’ll feel better able to tackle the language barrier.

You can also book a day tour to start your trip, or a handful of day tours throughout your vacation. That way you’ll have the benefit of an English-speaking guide but you have a little more flexibility throughout your trip to do as you please.

Try G Adventures for a full-length tour or Viator for day tours.

Someone else has been there before you

Read online travel forums for reassurance. Chances are there are plenty of other people who have traveled to the destination you’re thinking of going. Search through the questions to see what people are saying about how easy it was to get around without knowing the local language.

If someone else traveled there and figured out a way around the language differences, you can do it too. Just keep telling yourself that, and once you get there, you’ll believe it. Afterwards, you’ll feel great that you met a challenge head on and succeeded. It’s one of the many reasons I love to travel.

fear of not speaking the language - signs in Laos and Cambodia

It might seem impossible to travel to a country with a different language and sometimes a completely different alphabet, but remember how much of the world learns English. Even in less educated parts of the world, people who work in some sort of tourism job will most likely know a few phrases of basic English. 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. Just think of it as another part of the journey, and enjoy the ride.

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What if you don't speak the language?