Tips & Advice / Travel

Traveling to a Place Where You Don’t Speak the Language

Traveling to a Place Where You Don't Speak the Language

Hola from Santiago! That’s right, I’m in South America for my first time ever, thanks to a cheap-ass flight I found on The Flight Deal. My itinerary included a little bit of Brazil (you can see some fun pics on my Insta), some Chile this week, and even more Brazil until the end of November.

Unfortunately, my German skills aren’t terribly useful here—go figure. Brazilians speak Portuguese, which I started trying to learn a little bit on tape, and Chileans speak Spanish, which I know exactly nada of. As anyone who has traveled to a place where they don’t speak the language,  it sometimes requires a lot of effort to communicate even with the simplest exchanges. I spent a few minutes yesterday trying to tell a Metro employee that I wanted to buy a ticket, until finally I discovered the quickest way to do so was to hold up one finger and say, “uno.”

Some people imagine a language barrier is debilitating, but it only is if you make it so. Not knowing the language is part of the experience of being a foreigner, and it should certainly not deter you from going to amazing destinations. Besides, conversation is only partially achieved through words—think of how much of your own communication with friends is based on body language or simple gestures. Here are a few pieces of advice on how to get by in a country where you don’t know the language.

* Have important information written down. This is just a good idea in general. Have the address(es) of where you’re staying and the names and locations of the places you are going. Worst case scenario you pull out that piece of paper and point to the name of where it is you want to go.

* Download an app. Google Translate is great, especially if you’re in a city or a place where you have wifi. Also find an offline dictionary app that will work even when you’re phone’s data is turned off. The offline ones that I have for Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish actually allow me to type in phrases, which I love.

* Bring along a physical dictionary. Get one of those tiny pocket ones and do things old school—find what you want and either try to pronounce it or simply point to it. Small phrasebooks are also useful.

While it takes up a little more packing space, I decided to bring a pocket dictionary/phrasebook because 1) it doesn’t waste any of my phone battery and 2) I don’t have to flash my iPhone around and/or hand it to a stranger to be understood. That said, the Portuguese/English dictionary app on my phone has been great when speaking with a host, sitting at a restaurant, or just overall in a more private or safe setting.

Traveling to a Place Where You Don't Know the Language

More than anything, this phrasebook has given me a little more confidence when walking around Chile.

* Get really good at charades. You may not know the word for toilet in this new language, but crossing your legs and doing the pee pee dance is pretty universal. Even just good body language, lots of pointing, and an expressive face is better than trying to communicate solely through words.

* Or, alternatively, up your Pictionary game. I haven’t used this method myself, but I would be remiss not to include it. If you feel that you can best get your point across with a notepad and a pen, carry that around with you. I personally feel like it would take more effort and time than just acting something out, but it’s an option for all you artsy folks out there.

* Catch on to some of the basics. I feel like every foreigner has had that experience where you’re in a crowd and you bump into someone, immediately responding, “Excuse me,” and then you feel like an idiot because that means absolutely nothing to the person you just ran into. That’s an excellent time to use some of the language to make your experience smoother. Don’t worry: full-on learning another language is different from memorizing a few key words or phrases.

As I was chatting with my guy the other night, we agreed that there are 4 things that you really should try to know in a foreign language when you visit: “Hello,” “thank you,” “excuse me” or “pardon,” and “Do you speak English?” Of course, if you can pick up a few other things, that’s even better: “I would like…,” “Where is the…,” and a simple “please” will also go far. “How do you say x?” is also useful, especially if you’re staying for a while and trying to really learn the language. Anything beyond those phrases will only help you even more, on top of the vocabulary a dictionary can provide for you, and it will show you’ve clearly put an effort into understanding the local culture, which people really do appreciate it.

Tourists who at least know how to say “please” and “thank you” in the native tongue are sometimes received differently from those who merely hope that anyone they interact with knows enough conversational English to get by. I’ve found that, for the most part, when locals see you’re trying to speak the language, they are a little more sympathetic to you and willing to help.

How to Travel to a Place Where You Don't Speak the Language

A local’s market in Santiago that my Couchsurfing hosts took me to.

* Find a guide or travel companion. Yes, you could hire someone to guide you through this new location (do your research beforehand to make sure this is actually worthwhile), but a guide can also simply be a friendly local you meet or a fellow traveler who knows some of the language. Couchsurfing members are usually enthusiastic about meeting people from around the world and showing them a good time in their country, and more often than not, travelers who stay in hostels are open to socializing and connecting with others.

* Don’t worry if you make a fool of yourself. Because, let’s face it—you will. I certainly have. There will be times when you’ll feel stupid, you’ll be misunderstood, and when you will nod and smile and deep down be thinking, Wait, what did I just agree to? You will spend ten minutes trying to ask a shop owner if you can try something on. You will cause a scene when you act out your throat closing up and subsequent death to a waiter so he knows that you are allergic to pineapple.

The truth is: people will understand you better than you can guess, even if you don’t know a single word in their language. So while you probably already know it’s a great idea to learn a little bit of the language if you can, don’t get hung up on that if you can’t. It’s a really beautiful and humbling thing to understand and be understood without words, so embrace that side of travel as well!

Have you ever traveled somewhere where you didn’t know the language? What was your experience like? What advice do you have for others who are traveling and don’t know the language?

7 thoughts on “Traveling to a Place Where You Don’t Speak the Language

  1. Pingback: How do you say ‘where is the bathroom, please?’… | myfavoritebeachhouse

  2. Excellent advice! I went to France last year (don’t speak a lick of French outside of Bonjour, excuse-moi, etc.) and it was one of the most gratifying experiences ever. You hit the nail on the head 🙂

  3. My advice would be, to not feel embarressed if you get a word in their language wrong. Even if you get chuckled at. In the long run, you’re the one that’s in the process of learning it and practising is the only way you’re going to get better.

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