Language barrier? No problem. How to communicate while traveling when you don’t speak the language

This is me in every country:

Hello, excuse me, I am sorry I don’t speak [name of language] well.  Can you please tell me where is the bathroom/supermarket/train station/cool Romanesque church?  Thank you.  Goodbye.”

In spite of being a glamorous international traveler, my foreign language skills suck.  Wait, I take that back, I can roll my Rs like a champ.  (In case any of my readers want to hire someone to stand in front of crowds and rolls their Rs, I am available for a moderate fee.)

Actually, my poor language skills make me uniquely qualified to instruct others on communicating despite a language barrier, because if I can do it, anyone can.  So let me break it down for you, beginning with my all purpose statement, which is the minimum you should learn in the language of the country you’re visiting.

“Hello, excuse me, I am sorry I don’t speak [name of language] well.  Can you please tell me where is the bathroom/supermarket/train station/cool Romanesque church?  Thank you.  Goodbye.”

So obviously, you’ve got the standard polite stuff; greeting, excuse me, thank you, goodbye.  These phrases are essential, so give them priority when you study.   And of course you’ll need to learn “where is” and the names of places you’ll be trying to find (for me, that would be the bathroom).  Most importantly, you’ll notice I don’t lead with “Do you speak English?”  Rather, I find situations proceed much more smoothly when I begin by apologizing for not knowing the language.   The apology often elicits a polite “Not true–you speak quite well!” to which I reply “Oh no no no, I speak very bad!” and now we’re a bit giggly and relaxed and can proceed to communicate using whatever resources we have on hand.  At the very least you’ve established that you’re not a cultural imperialist patronizing jerk…which leads me to the following key principles of cross-cultural communication:

  •  Number one rule: don’t be a cultural imperialist patronizing jerk.  I’m talking to you, my fellow Americans, most of whom are lovely but a few who make me want to bury my passport.  English is no better or worse than any other language and you are not entitled to have people speak it to you in a foreign country.  If you can’t handle that, please stay home and stop giving the rest of us a bad name.
  • Point to what you want.  Looking for a building?  Point at a picture of the building in your guidebook and say “Please?  Where?”  Whip out a map and point at your destination.  Carry a dual language phrasebook and dictionary—even if you can’t pronounce what you want, you can always hold up the book and point to the phrase.
  • Learn compliments and liberally throw them around.  I work in the visitor services field, and nothing makes me more eager to assist a customer than when they compliment my city.  So if you’re enjoying a tasty meal you should smile and rub your tummy and say “Delicious!  Very good!” to the person who served it to you.  If you’re loving a town and it’s architecture, gesture about and say “[Name of town] very beautiful!”  If you’re chatting up a local on public transportation, share your most sincere compliments about the place where they live.  People will overlook your crappy language skills if you show them you love their culture.
  • Now that you’re on a roll, learn the words “ticket”, “water,” “bakery”, “coffee” and the phrases “How much does it cost?” and “What time do you close?”  You’ll need to know some numbers too, 1 – 10 is ideal.
  • Many languages have an informal and formal tense.  Play it safe and stick with the formal tense and default to the more formal greeting  For example, “Ciao!” in Italian is informal—a better choice would be “Buongiorno.”
  • Check out language cds from your library.  I find Pimsleur conversational guides to be the most effective, though I have to repeat each lesson an embarrasing amount of times.  In addition, youtube.com can be a good resource for gaining basic conversational skills.
  • Traveling someplace that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet?  You saucy adventurer you!  Attempt to learn your destination’s alphabet and how to pronounce the letters if you can, though this admittedly can be quite a challenge.  (Currently I’m trying to learn Georgian and can only remember the letter for “o”—“ო”—because it looks like an upside-down butt.
  • If you’re desperate to find an English speaker, look for a young adult (late high school or college age) or go to the desk at a large hotel—it’s not guaranteed but these are your more likely candidates.
  • In crucial situations, write down what you want to communicate in advance.  Buying a long distance train ticket?  Walk up to the ticket counter, say “Please” and point to a piece of paper where you’ve written  “Two tickets to Bucharest North at 17:00 second class.”

The key to effective communication abroad is to abandon your dignity.  I know I sound ridiculous trying to speak a foreign language, but who cares as long as I get my point across.  Heck, I’m providing free entertainment because who doesn’t enjoy laughing at a grammatically impaired language mangler?  And once you’ve parted ways with your dignity, it’s ever so much easier to indulge in body-language theatrics.  Short on words?  No worries—foreign travel is one big hilarious game of charades.  Ever try acting out the malady “diarrhea” in front of line of people at a busy pharmacists?  Trust me, it’s almost as satisfying as touring a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of course, there is one more sure fire way to communicate in a foreign country—you could actually learn the language.  Shocking concept but yet, some brave folks attempt it.  My own husband HOB decided to learn French as a full grown adult, and people I am here to testify that he can now speak French!  He has no special language skills either (sorry HOB), rather he learned the old fashioned way: by studying and going to classes and conversation groups.  It can be done, apparently, though don’t hold your breath for me to undertake such a arduous endeavor.

So, fellow travel junkies (who surely are much more language competent than me)—how do you communicate when you can’t speak the language?

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31 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Live and Travel Your Life and commented:
    Some of your greatest fun while traveling might come from the various languages!
    Currently I am often utilizing out my Russian that I still remember from school, in Czechia, and having a hilarious time with Czechlish, plus comparing Czech and Hungarian to each other – we have much more words in common than one would think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Czechlish–that’s a new one to me.

      I think if you heard me trying to speak Hungarian when I was in Budapest you would have laughed yourself silly Andrea.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahaha, must be like when Hungarians try to speak English, sometimes. And we have Hunglish, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, the topic of languages is one of my favorites about traveling! Reblogged your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing my post Andrea. You’re right—languages really fun. I just wish I was better at speaking them! How many languages do you know? Hungarian, Romanian, Czech, English?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a great post, I find it very useful!

        I speak Hungarian, English, German, Swedish, a little French, Russian and some very basic Czech, and I can read Italian, Danish, Norwegian and Dutch a little bit. No Romanian, though, I only understand a few words.

        For me, languages were always really some exciting FUN. But nowadays I find myself getting lazy – in fact, I want to get my my good old habit of learning the language of a place as best as I can while I am there. I think that is one awesome part of the whole experience. Thank you Wifey for the reminder!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. We have a house in a region of Spain that speaks a dialect known only to itself…when we first moved to France we found the same thing…and our area in Costa Rica does not disappoint in that respect…..so we are experts in making ourselves understood…by the fifth attempt at least…

    Mark you, coming from the U.K. with its multitudes of dialects I suppose we have had training.

    Who would suppose that a place written as Happisburgh could be pronounced as Haisbrough….or that in Glasgow the sequence

    Where is the bus
    There is the bus
    There is the bus over there

    could be expressed as

    Wherabus?
    Erabus.
    Ereabus o’er ere.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Wherabus?
      Erabus.
      Ereabus o’er ere.

      Pure poetry.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Sííííííí. Lol.

      Like

  4. My Italian remains rubbish and is a cause if laughter amongst many locals. That’s even after taking lessons and being immersed in the local culture for a number of weeks.
    You need to pack your sense of humour when traveling in places that Englisg isn’t the usual language and hope the locals have done the same!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s like being the bad dancer at the party—we make everyone else feel good about themselves.

      Like

      1. How ironic we are sitting with our Sicilian neighbour struggling through this challenge right now!😃😃

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed this post more than I should have LOL. I’m not American (actually, my first language is Spanish), but I think I’m a “cultural imperialist patronizing jerk” XD. When I went to Romania, my first question was always “Do you speak English?”, even before the “Do you speak Spanish?”. I’m actually double imperialist? LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *Double imperialist* GAH! [covers ears].

      What did you think of Romania? I love the place so much!

      Like

      1. We actually couldn’t explore the whole country; just Bucharest, Peles Castle (in Sinaia) and Bran Castle (the famous Dracula’ castle). While I have to say that I found the capital in quite a state of neglect, I LOVED LOVED LOVED the castles.
        (Sorry for my English 😄 )

        Liked by 1 person

  6. My preference if at all possible is to try at least read 10 words in total of a language or say hello, thank you.

    I’m ridiculous all the time in front of my mother whenever I visit. She only speaks Chinese same for many relatives in Canada who immigrated as adults.

    I do end up speaking English or stumble in French in Europe, if I don’t know the language at all. ie. Greek or Czech. My partner relies on his eroded German.

    Like

    1. Some of my in-laws are native Mandarin speakers, including those who come to live with my brother and his wife for extended stays who don’t speak English at all. It’s kind of an adventure when we all get together, and of course it’s just wonderful for my nieces since they are learning two languages from birth.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is always so confusing. When living in Germany and out travelling (I’m from Germany), we would always ask locals: “Do you speak English?”, to be able to communicate in a common language. Now that I live in the UK and speak English every day, I feel ignorant speaking English while travelling! Such a weird situation. I suppose I now realise how Anglo-centric my whole world view was (is?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems that Germans are so good with languages—most of them are fluent in several languages. I’m jealous!

      I don’t think you’re Anglo-centric, you’re just trying to find a lingua franca.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True, but now that I’m a English speaker at home, I feel more ignorant than I did when English was my ‘second language’ for not trying to speak a different language abroad. Weird and irrational, I know, but true! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I am definitely in agreement with you here! At least trying to learn a few phrases goes a long way to helping you get around and making people want to help you. I love Duolingo for learning the basics, and YouTube like you mentioned!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Duolingo is a new one to me —thanks for the tip Kaitlin. Do you buy it or check it out from the library?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a free app! Surprisingly good for being free, and great for a quick trip. It got me through 10 days in Italy. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Such an interesting topic. On my first trip overseas (1976)I was blown away by how many western Europeans spoke some English, though I had to resort to German 101 to come up with ‘kleine’ when asked how big a scoop of icecream we wanted- because I didn’t remember the word for large! I agree with all your advice but am aided by the fact that I speak French (a bilingual Canadian.) So I have been able to handle basic Spanish and Italian fairly easily. Travel in Japan was a snap because there were English signs everywhere. Friendliness, politeness, pointing and creative sign language take you a long way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah you bilingual Canadians: I’m so jealous!

      As far as I’m concerned, every language guide should have a section dedicated just to ordering ice cream.

      Like

  10. My Italian is still pretty good from my college days, and that makes it easy for me to read most Romance languages, but I struggle with pronunciation. Although my accent is horrendous, I’ve never had anyone make fun of my French, German, or Flemish, because locals seem to really appreciate the effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You should travel in Romania then–I was pleasantly surprised at how similar Romanian is to Italian.

      I was confused when I was in Belgium. There would be towns close to each other, one speaking French, the other Flemish. And it was actually somehow acceptable to speak English in the Flemish area, but French was a big no – no …..

      Like

      1. Interesting! I’ve heard that Italian is spoken commonly in the coastal towns of Slovenia and Croatia, but didn’t have any idea that Romanian is also a Romance language. Flemish is horribly difficult to learn, pronunciation-wise. When I studied abroad in the Netherlands for a summer, it was all I could do to manage “please” and “thank you”.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Great advice hilariously told!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you—-at least I have the market cornered on “incompetent yet funny foreign language expert”…..

      Liked by 1 person

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