language barriers: traveling tips

One of the most difficult parts of traveling can be tackling the language and cultural barriers. While I do sometimes feel incredibly thankful that English is so commonly understood throughout the world, I do my best not to rely on this fact. By learning a new language (or at least a little bit) you’re showing your respect for another country and that you value them and their language. Your willingness to learn shows that you are open-minded and interested in their culture.

Don’t let a non-English speaking destination prevent you from traveling the globe. Here are some tips to help you get by wherever you may be headed!

1. Learn key travel phrases.

No matter where you are headed, you’re going to need to know a few basic words and phrases. You’re not going to be able to gesture and point the entire trip. Here are the phrases and words that I find incredibly helpful when traveling:

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Thank you
  • Please
  • Yes/No
  • I’m sorry
  • Restroom/Toilet
  • Water (tap v.s. bottled/sparkling)
  • Excuse me
  • Numbers 1-10
  • Name of their currency
  • My name is _______ .
  • I’m from _______ .
  • Where is the ________ .
  • I would like ________ .
  • How much is this?
  • Do you speak English?
  • I do not speak __________ .
  • I don’t understand.
  • I understand.
  • Help
  • Doctor
  • Hospital
  • Police
  • Okay/yeah/sure (find out what the common filler word is in conversation instead of using a head nod. Ex: “vale” in Spain - pronounced sort of like “ballet.” It is so frequently used that I quickly integrated it into my Travel 101 Spanish lingo upon learning it).

Learning common phrases may seem basic, but it makes a world of difference. Approaching someone for directions or even ordering off a menu in their language may make your interaction a million times better. People tend to open up more when they see you try and they are more prone to help you. And you will feel all the more comfortable if you’re able to respond!


2. Learn what is and isn’t appropriate in the country you’re visiting.

Even when you have the best of intentions, cultural differences, and local manners can be incredibly different from what you are used to and can cause some uncomfortable situations. Certain words or gestures may be interpreted as rude or inappropriate in their culture. It is vital that you educate yourself before you travel so you can be properly prepared. Be sure to come back next week for Part 2 of this article on Cultural Appropriateness.

3. Take a language class.

If you are planning well in advance, you can sign up for a class at your local community college or hire a private tutor. This is a valuable way to not only get some practice in before you go, but you’ll also be able to get immediate feedback on your pronunciation and accuracy. There is more pressure for you to do well when you are in a traditional learning environment, so if you’re serious about mastering the basics before you go, this is the best way to do it! If you’re not able to take a class, your next best options are below.

4. Audio and online learning.


Head to the library, bookstore, or head online to find a great audio language-learning program.

Rosetta Stone still makes CD-Rom programs (remember those?) and also offers a downloadable version and online version. Rosetta Stone can be an expensive program, but there are a bunch of free and cheap options out there too!

Website and community-based learning programs are also invaluable. While one of my favorite language learning websites is now defunct (RIP LiveMocha), there are still a ton of options out there to engage with a language community online.

Sites like italki allow you to hire a private teacher or interact within the language exchange community section where other learners will be able to find your profile and contact you. You can add “friends” to speak with so you have real life practice before your trip. You can pay by italki credits (ITC) or in dollars (1 dollar = 10 ITC) for lessons or you can interact with other users for free.

Babbel is a subscription-based language learning website (and app) that allows you to purchase courses for beginners, intermediate, and advanced users. Users can purchase a one month, three month, six month or year long memberships.

Another program that I haven’t had an opportunity to try is Mango Languages. Lessons include memory and critical thinking exercises to help understand languages and improve conversational abilities. You can pay a monthly membership fee, or if you’re really lucky, you can find it for free through your local library.

5. Get a phrase book.

A phrase book is filled with common vocabulary and phrases that are indexed and categorized to help you out when you’re traveling. If you’re in a bind, you can whip this out and flip to the page you need and read the translated text to someone you’re speaking to. If your accent is terrible, then you can always point to the phrase.

Yes, this may be a bit old school given the ever increasing digital language app market, but it can also do a lot of good! If you’re worried about your phone getting stolen or you run out of battery, a small phrase book can make a world of difference.

6. Download language and translation apps.


For those of you on the go, an app may be your best chance of learning the basics before your trip. A simple search in the app store and you’ll find so many options that you may be overwhelmed. There are apps that help you learn a language, phrasebooks, or even translate one language to another.

Have 5 minutes to spare before your meeting? Great! Spend that time using one of these apps:

Duolingo - Duolingo is free to use and includes a mix of lessons that involve reading, listening, writing and speaking. I find that the best apps make learning a language like a game. Duolingo makes it fun by awarding you points for completing lessons and getting bonus points for a job well done. It encourages you to practice every day by letting you know how many days you’ve used it in a row (don’t wanna break that 60-day streak now, do ya?). Sign in with your Facebook or Google+ account and you can also track how your friends are doing. A bit of healthy competition can make learning fun!

Other language learning apps:

Phrasebook apps:

Translator apps:

7. Use visual aids.


Photo from IconSpeak

You may have seen pictures or articles floating around about the T-shirt being sold with emoji icons all across it. One such shirt, from IconSpeak, is making a splash in the travel world. The idea is simple, print a shirt with emoji symbols for places and things that you may need while traveling. Whether you need a bed to sleep in, searching for free wi-fi, or in need of a hospital, all you have to do is point to the image on your shirt, and hopefully the person you’re interacting with can assist you with what you need.

If this isn’t for you, you can also print a page of images for things you may need. If you have a strict diet or allergies, this can be especially helpful. If you have a nut allergy, having an allergy card with images and a translation can be vital! Many companies also have fold out laminated translators that have pictures of what you might need during your trip.

8. Hand gestures.

Those nights playing charades may come in handy now. Yes, it can be terribly embarrassing, but if you need something and you’re unable to say it or point to an image of it, you can always mime it! Avoid anything vulgar of course. Hopefully, someone will get a laugh out of it (including you), and you’ll get pointed in the right direction.


9. Hire an interpreter.

If you are traveling for business and are relying upon this trip to solidify a deal or establish a working relationship with another company, you can’t afford any language misinterpretations. An interpreter can bridge the language gap and also cultural differences as well.

If you’re traveling for pleasure and not for business, you can always get the benefits of hiring an interpreter too (or even a variation of this). A tour guide is one of these alternatives. If you’re headed to the museum or another tourist spot, sign up for a guided tour. You’ll learn much more about the history of the area and their culture than you ever would just walking around on your own.

10. Be persistent.

In touristy areas, you’ll probably be handed an English menu at a restaurant and asked what you would like to order in English too. Instead of ordering in English, try your best to use your newfound vocabulary because you didn’t learn it for nothin’!

If you come across someone that speaks English (or may be learning English) they may want to practice it with you. Insist that you would like to practice their language first, but if you get to a point in a conversation when you can’t keep up you can offer to switch to English (but only after you’ve given it an honest effort). If you do speak in English, speak slowly and keep your vocabulary simple so you are best understood.


Your Turn:

Have you ever let a language barrier get in between you and visiting another country?

What language apps, books, or programs have worked best for you and why?