It's kind of funny. If I don't speak the language that's spinning around me, I automatically turn to French.
It's not that I'm hoping someone will understand French. It's some crossed wire in my brain that says “if I'm having trouble understanding 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 was 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.
Tips for 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. Read Best Destinations for Solo Travelers: Deciding Where to Go.
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.
Here are 10 tips for travel in a foreign language.
- Learn the basics. At minimum learn to say please, thank you, and hello in the local language before you go. Even this was a challenge for me when I went to Japan earlier this year. But after I'd heard arigato gosaimas–thank you very much in Japanese–dozens of times in the first day alone, it stuck.
- Use hand gestures and sounds. My best story about using hand gestures and sound to get a point across was when I took the Navimag ferry to Puerto Natales to go to Patagonia. The ship hit an island, making us 22 hours late. I went to the B&B that I had booked for the night to ask for a refund but no one there spoke English. So, my left hand became the island, and my right hand the ferry. My right hand moved towards my left smoothly, hit the island, and then puttered past it. They got the idea. The ferry had crashed. And I got my money back.
- Have important details written down. Take the business card of your hotel or hostel. Write basic information such as your name, emergency contact, and insurance information on a card in your wallet. Be sure that it is written in the local language. In Japan, before I left one hostel I had them write the address of my next accommodation down in Japanese script. This was very helpful.
- Get Google Translate. You can go online for this but the app is more useful and it can be used offline. You can type out words and phrases, point your camera at menus and signs, or speak to get a translation. For some languages, there's also real-time spoken conversation mode to chat (at a very basic level) with someone who doesn't speak your language.
- Be patient, stand back, and observe. Even if you don't have Google translate you can often figure out the meaning of signs, etc., just by standing back and observing.
- Ask a young adult. Most students around the world study English. When I'm really at a loss and need some basic help, I'll ask someone in their teens or early twenties as they will likely have basic English.
- Recruit a teacher. If you're traveling slow, find a local who wants to speak English and is willing to let you practice their language. Try to add a few practical words to your vocabulary every day.
- Learn as you go. Use 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.
- Hire a local guide in your language. If you have the budget, hire a local guide or an interpreter for special situations.
- Build language lessons into your travels. Immersion into a culture and language is the best way to learn. I did this in Quebec City. Read A Language School Experience: Solo and Very Social.
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.
Have you discovered other tips for communicating when you travel in a foreign language? Please share them in the comments section below.