Language is a huge part of every culture! It’s what allows us to feel connected to our home and heritage, even when we far away, surrounded by people unfamiliar with our background. A shared language can be the start of great friendships and deep connections while using different languages can divide us and scare us away from visiting new places and learning about the people who live there. Traveling someplace that speaks a language you don’t doesn’t have to be scary! It can be eye-opening and exciting and remind you that no matter where we’re from or how we speak, there’s a lot we have in common!
I’ve grown to really love visiting places that speak a different language and found it can be easy, so long as you keep a few things in mind.
#1 Be Realistic
Ideally, we would all love to be fluent in the local language when traveling. It would help us fit in and make things a little easier, but is realistic? Does it make sense to take a year-long French class because you’re going to Paris for a 5-day vacation? Do you really need to hire a translator for a weekend in Tokyo? When going on short trips, learning the language can take a hundred times longer than your visit, so unless you are genuinely interested in the language or plan on going back, it doesn’t really make sense to try and become fluent. Instead, you should spend your time planning both your trip and your ways around the language barrier.
#2 Be Strategic
Places like Paris and Tokyo, and other major tourist destinations, see hundreds of foreign visitors a day, which means they’re prepared for lots of non-native speakers. They might have street signs in the native language and in English, multi-lingual menus, or tours offered in your tongue. Plus, the chances of finding someone who speaks your language are higher, especially if that language is English. However, if you want to leave the city and visit the French or Japanese countryside, you’re going to have a lot harder time finding a menu you can read. Places off the beaten path don’t make many accommodations for foreign tourists since they don’t see too many.
When planning your trip, you will want to take your language skills into consideration. If you know virtually no French, stick to the cities and more frequently visited spots to avoid a big language barrier. If you really want to see a hidden gem in Japan, but don’t know any Japanese, then it might be worth taking a class or booking a tour with a guide you will understand.
#3 Use a Translation App
In this day and age, you can talk to anyone regardless of the language with a translation app like Google Translate, iTranslate, or SayHi. These can help you order dinner, read a map, and even check in at your hotel. If you use an app that lets you download the language, then you can translate anywhere regardless of wifi or data (amazing, right?). More importantly, translation apps can save the day when you get lost or don’t know the word for something, which is a great way to silence all the “what if” questions bouncing around your head, making you rethink visiting somewhere when you don’t speak the language.
#4 Learn the Basics
Speaking of apps, you can use a number of free programs to teach yourself some basic phrases before your trip. While I don’t recommend an expensive or time-consuming language course for a short excursion, I do recommend putting in time on a free language-learning app for even a short weekend away. Being able to say something in the language will give you confidence and make you feel a little less like a foreigner in an unknown land. Plus, in my experience, people really appreciate the effort! Just saying “please” and “thank you” can make your waiter less annoyed by your lack of language and more excited to tell you about the area, and no one knows where to go better than the locals!
#5 Take Advantage of Technology
When purchasing tickets, whether for long-distance trains or for shows, see if you can buy them online or at a ticket machine instead of at a ticket counter. Some websites are in multiple languages, especially if the site is popular amongst tourists, and most electronic ticket counters will do the same.
If I hadn’t booked my ticket from the airport to Berlin using a machine, I would have booked the cheapest ticket instead of one that covered going into the city.
#6 Do Some Research
If you’re looking things up anyways, see what other people said about the area! Whether it’s from a blog like this one or TripAdvisor, it is always helpful to know if the train station is under construction, so buses are going between stops, or if there isn’t clear signage to a popular destination. Knowing these things in advance will make you less nervous when the train stops and the conductor says something you don’t understand, and it lets you prepare to ask someone for directions.
#7 Minimize Miscommunications
You might not mind if you get raspberry gelato when you wanted strawberry, but you will mind if your taxi driver takes you to a church by the water instead of a castle on the hill. To minimize the number of miscommunications, write down the name and address of where you’re trying to go so you can give it to drivers or people you need to ask directions from.
Don’t want to worry about talking to a driver? Use an app like Uber to book a ride online in the language you speak. You will know when and where you’re being picked-up and can be confident that you’re getting dropped off at the right spot without having to speak to a soul.
#8 Take Advantage of Local Speakers
If you’re in a city and found someone who speaks your language, even if it is only a little, make good use of your time with them! Ask all the questions you need answers to, from recommendations to directions to how to say things you wish you knew. Just be sure to really thank them for taking the time to help you!
Having trouble understanding each other? Be sure to speak slowly and clearly when talking to someone not super fluent in your language (but not loudly because your new friend is not deaf) and try to avoid using more advanced vocabulary. For example, if you’re talking to your mom, you’d say “I’m interested in staying someplace with a pool,” but if you’re taking to someone who isn’t as familiar with your language, they might not know “interested in” means the same as “want to” and they may have never learned the word “pool” because it doesn’t come up too often. Instead, to avoid confusion, try saying something more straightforward like “I want to stay in a hotel and swim.” Odds are, the person you’re talking to will get you’re looking for a pool without having to use the word.
#9 Go Old School
You would be amazed at how far you can get by simply pointing and smiling. Don’t believe me? Try this out at home before you go! Go to a bakery and ask for two muffins by just pointing and holding up a number. Then, go to the store and looking at the register to see how much you owe instead of talking to the cashier. You won’t be able to discuss your thoughts on world history, but miming will get you by in most places.
#10 Don’t Expect to Understand Everything
You can download all the apps, learn the key phrases, and mime like a professional, but you might end up in a situation where your app doesn’t work or you don’t understand the question being asked. It’s ok, we’ve all been there, and it is stressful, but you will survive! And more than that, it will be a learning experience!
You might not understand what the waiter’s saying when explaining a dish, but you could love the mystery food. You might not know what someone is trying to show you, but once you see it, you’ll understand why they think it’s so great.
Part of traveling is getting out of your comfort zone and learning more about the world around you. What better way to do that than to visit someplace where even talking is a new experience?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashleen is a science editor and travel blogger who loves pretending to be a local and getting outdoors whenever possible. When she’s not working on a post, Ashleen is an avid reader, a museum-lover, and a self-proclaimed foodie. Currently based in Boston, she is taking every chance she’s given to get outside her comfort zone and out of the city for a bit! Check
her out at https://www.abitbrighter.com/ or on Instagram at a.bit.brighter!