Language is Your Lifeline: 10 Tips for travel in a foreign language

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I spoke at The Visit Russia Forum in Yaroslavl – I don’t have a word of Russian.

It’s kind of funny. If I don’t speak the language that’s spinning around me, I automatically speak French.

It’s not that I’m hoping that someone will understand French. It’s some crossed wire in my brain that says “if I can’t understand it, it must be French”. And it just comes out of my mouth if I don’t catch it in time.  Another traveler recently confessed to the same phenomenon only for him, the optional language is Spanish.

Clearly, I don’t have an ear for languages. Yet, I do manage to travel places where the language doesn’t resemble English at all. It can be done.

Solo Travel When You Don’t Speak the Language

It’s usually recommended that first time solo travelers go to countries where they speak the language. After all, language is your life line for safety, food and shelter.

But when you’re ready to go a bit farther afield and discover the adventure that awaits in less familiar cultures, it’s important to have a strategy for the travel language issue.

So I give you… 10 tips for travel in a foreign language.

  1. Learn the basics – at minimum learn to say please, thank you and  hello in the local language before you go.
  2. Use hand gestures and sounds to get your point across. Read the Kwintessental guides to etiquette in other countries to ensure that your gestures and sounds are not insulting.
  3. Have important details on a card in your wallet written in the local language – the address of your accommodation, the telephone number, your name and a contact person in case of emergency.
  4. Carry a phrase book. I know, it’s old school but for many people it offers a level of comfort that other options don’t. You could also save a bit of money by researching basic phrases on the web and printing them on a sheet of paper before you go.
  5. Download one of the many translation apps that are available for your smartphone.
  6. If you make a local friend at a coffee shop or grocery store, recruit them to be your teacher. Try to add a few, practical words to your vocabulary every day.
  7. Learn as you go. Use the phrase books as a crash course in the language. Extract the most important words – the nouns and verbs — and use them to communicate like a young child does, with very simple phrases.
  8. If you have the cash, hire an interpreter for special situations.
  9. Be patient, stand back and observe. Many questions can be answered without speaking.
  10. Build language lessons into your travels. Immersion into a culture and language is the best way to learn.

Number 11 comes from Jeffery, a member of the Solo Travel Society on Facebook.

11. Draw pictures. Whether on paper or in the dirt you learn a lot – you can  even get directions as he did by drawing pictures in the sand in the middle of nowhere, Cuba.

  • Gemma @ gemmajaneadventures

    Phrasebooks are great, and even when you say it all wrong at least you can point to the right phrase for the locals! Just make sure you get a specific one for the area your going; In Latin America the verb ‘to take’ commonly used in Spanish actually meant ‘to F***’ could lead to some embarrassment when you ask ‘which bus to take’ :)

  • Teddy

    Kwikpoint is a passport-sized, accordian-folded and laminated brochure with pictures you can point to for almost every conceivable situation. I just got one for my upcoming solo RTW travel and I’m really glad I did . . . I find Asian languages especially intimidating and I expect to use it a lot!

  • Cindy Van Vreede

    My question: If you learn to ask a question in another language, will you also know enough of the language to know the answer your are given?

  • Barbara

    I’ve made a list of 50 essential words and short phrases. About 5 of them are my unique needs, like “gluten free”. I figure i can remember 50 and I have a laminated 1/4 page to help me.

  • David C. Maness

    Solo travel is all about language learning for me. I endorse every one of these pointers. Solo travel is better than regular travel for language learning because it forces you into the language. I always carry a notepad and pen with me to write down things I see and hear, and then when I get the chance, I look them up or — better yet — get with a local to teach them to me. I find this whole thing incredibly enriching. It’s like a free education. I think perhaps the most important expression in any language is “excuse me,” because if I accidentally bump someone or step on a foot, it helps me avoid conflict.

  • TravelnLass

    All good points (though I dare say, one doesn’t need “iTunes” to d/l a boatload of nifty a.droid apps) 😉 (btw, my fave is Duolingo)

    Only thing I’d add to learning a foreign language is a simple two words: Just SPEAK!

    i.e. you will NEVER learn a foreign language without trying to speak it – every blessed chance you get (and yes, yes, you will undoubtedly sound like an idiot at first – get over it.) 😉

  • Mark Northcott

    Definitely Hello and thank you are essential. Sorry/Excuse me maybe next. “What is this” and “Where is this” maybe next.
    All the rest are easily done by hand and sounds (Is that pork? = Point and Oink Oink sound)
    Phrasebooks are usually bought and occasionally referenced. I always get an online version so it can be archived and forgotten when you move to another country (and used again if you return)
    I’ve just started using Google Apps but forget it in places where foreigners can’t buy SIM cards with internet like Japan.
    Locals are great. Having a friend do translation in a restaurant is invaluable.
    Observation is good. Watch how the locals order their food and what they order. Also how public transport works (Every place on earth is different)
    Don’t be scared to try. sometimes you will get a grumpy person who couldn’t be bothered to help someone who can’t speak the native language (like you get back home) but really most people will try to help if you try your best.

  • Where in the World is Nina

    I carry a mini notebook and write EVERYTHING down. If I don’t write it down myself, i won’t remember it.

  • Lingo Live

    I especially like the tip “recruit a teacher.” Nothing can replace one-on-one interaction with a native speaker and the impact (mental and emotional) that this exchange creates. Also, we can’t forget about the physical language. Like you say, hand gestures and movements can be critical in communication.

  • Ryan Faas

    Phrase books are a great thing to have and read. What better way to spend an airplane trip or boring bus ride than learning some useful local language tid bits.

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  • Lilliane

    A traveler I hosted through couchsurfing showed me his copy of this .. it was so fab that I bought a dozen to give to my friends who like to travel. :)

  • Emily

    I totally use the phrasebooks even though my travel partners probably think I’m a big nerd! I have a great Lonely Planet one for Western Europe–it’s small and contains a section for each major European language, with all the main phrases you need to know. It has come in handy MANY times, and I just lent it to a girlfriend who is about to go to Europe for the first time. There’s no shame in going old-school and using one! I’ve tried one of the electronic ones before, and it’s just too weird.