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The Solo Traveler Blog

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

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 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. Go to iTunes and download one of many translation apps.
  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.

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  • 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.

  • Pingback: Top 150 travel blogs for students ~ Blog ~

  • 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.

About Janice Waugh and Tracey Nesbitt

I'm an author, blogger, speaker and traveler. I became a widow and empty-nester at about the same time. And then, I became Solo Traveler... Here's the full story. >>

Tracey Nesbitt I’m a writer, editor, food and wine fanatic, and traveler. On my very first trip abroad I learned that solo travel was for me. Here's the full story. >>

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