How to Get By in a Foreign Country When You Don't Speak the Language

Posted by on in Travel

Traveling the globe can be the adventure of a lifetime, but sooner or later travelers are bound to run into some language barriers.

It isn't always feasible for international travelers and students to learn the language of every country they visit, but there are strategies they can use to make sure they're understood. Here are some communication tips to make your overseas journeys more enjoyable.

Use body language

Body language is an important tool when you're trying to make yourself understood by someone who doesn't speak your language. When you enter a restaurant and can't read the menu, look for pictures or a display case so you can point to the food you'd like to eat, or check out what the table next to you is having- if it looks good, you can order the same thing.

how to get by when you don't speak the language

Smiles, nods, shrugs, and gestures can also help you get your meaning across.

You should be aware that some gestures can have different meanings around the world, however. For example, The Huffington Post says the thumbs-up sign, which signifies approval in many countries, is considered to be rude and offensive in Latin America, West Africa, Iraq, and Iran.

Check out some other commonly confused gestures here.

Invest in maps or a GPS system

You'll spend less time asking for directions if you have a good, current street map or a global positioning system (GPS). Simplified maps that are handed out for free at hotels usually aren't adequate.

how to get by when you don't speak the language

When planning your trip, check in advance to make sure the countries you plan to visit have mapping data available for your GPS device.

When traveling in Europe, you typically have the choice of using a smartphone mapping app or renting a GPS when you pay for your rental car, says the Rick Steves' Europe travel website.

Not sure how to get around once you've arrived? Download the FREE Ultimate Guide to International Travel - and check out its transportation tips!

Observe others

When you don't know the language, you can learn a great deal by observing others. If you're not sure how to behave in various situations, WikiHow suggests that you follow the examples set by the people around you.

how to get by when you don't speak the language

Remember, you're bound to make some social mistakes, no matter how careful and observant you may be. The Abroad Guide says if you unintentionally offend someone you should simply apologize and explain that you're new to the culture—most people will understand.

Be courteous

Learning how to say a few basic words and phrases, such as "please," "thank you," and "hello," will help you make friends during your travels, according to Be My Travel Muse. The time you take to do this will pay off in terms of the cooperation you receive. It demonstrates your respect for the country you're visiting.

how to get by when you don't speak the language

Remember not to be too quick to take offense to behaviors with which you may not be familiar. For example, Lonely Planet says that pushing in busy places isn't considered rude in Italy, even though it may be out of place in your home country.

Consider using a translation app

Technology has come to the rescue of many international travelers, as a variety of smartphone apps have made it easy to translate foreign languages. Here are a few examples:

  • Google Translate is a free app for iOS and Android. The New York Times notes that it can create written translations for words you type, speak, photograph, or write on your touch screen.
  • iStone Travel Translation for iOS, Android, iPad and iPod Touch was designed to help travelers understand local colloquialisms, says Inc. The app includes a database of more than 300 daily phrases in many languages. It's free to try.
  • iTranslate for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone translates typed and spoken phrases. It features an easy-to-understand design, according to Laptopmag.com. You can save translations for later reference and there is no charge to download the app.
  • Trip Lingo, for iOS and Android, is an app that can provide translations for almost any phrase, including formal, casual, and slang variations. Travel + Leisure notes that it comes with instructional phrase books, audio lessons, and tips about local etiquette. A free version includes basic access to all features.
Don't forget to pack the Ultimate Guide to International Travel. Download now!

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