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How you can overcome the language barrier

When you travel abroad or think of traveling abroad, do you lean toward choosing only English-speaking countries? Do you feel overwhelmed by the thought of navigating directions, meals, and questions in a language you do not speak? You are not alone, it can be intimidating! But don't let it stop you from experiencing the rest of the world. With a few helpful tips you can prepare yourself for adventure anywhere.


There are many apps for your phone that are great for translating to other languages. Google translate is up at the top of that list. It offers 50 languages, and you can type or speak your question, see and hear it translated and get a written translation. I once tried to mime “reading glasses” to a Chinese eye glass store employee and while it was somewhat hilarious, it didn’t get me glasses. But when I returned with Google translate on the phone, and I could see again in no time.

Use your phone to take pictures to assist with directions and locations. You can record street signs, buildings and other locations that will help you remember where you have been and how to get back to where you started. Taking pictures of subways or other transit maps to refer to later is also a great idea. Before you head out to see the sights, have a few pictures of where you are going, so that if you need help from a local you can simply show them where you would like to go instead of trying to explain it. And, one of the best parts of translation apps is the ability to take pictures with your camera and have the words translated. Menu giving you trouble? Take a picture and you can have it in English in no time. Google Translate supports 100 languages in this way.

Although Internet is widespread in many tourist destinations, you might be in areas where WiFi is not available. Download maps, itinerary information and some helpful phrases to have off-line just in case.


Make it a priority to memorize a few words and expressions: "hello," "goodbye," "please," "thank you," "help," "I'm lost," "do you speak English?" We are fortunate that the English language is spoken in many countries around the world and often you can find someone who will know enough of it to help you, but I can’t emphasize enough how appreciated it is when travelers attempt to speak the local language, even just a little bit. When you do find an English speaker, use key subject words to keep it short and sweet. Saying "photo?" (in a questioning voice) while gesturing to your family will usually work much better than asking, "will you please take a picture of me and my family?"

Carry a notepad and pencil. It’s always good to be able to write down a few words, draw a sketch or write the address of where you are going for a taxi driver. And bring the business card of your hotel in the local language as well.

A smile will be universally understood (but is not always returned as easily in some countries - don’t take it personally). And courtesy is always appreciated. Pointing can be useful but remember that gestures can be interpreted differently in different cultures. It’s always best to use your whole hand instead of pointing with one finger. Do some research before you go to learn about other local customs and act accordingly.

Keep a sense of humor and sense of adventure. Don’t take yourself too seriously or shy away from communicating with locals just because your attempts won’t be perfect. Try a restaurant that doesn’t have an English menu, it tends to be a much more authentic place. Have a conversation with someone standing in line near you. They may be laughing at you, but chances are better that they are laughing with you!


Higher end hotels will generally have English speaking staff to assist you during your stay. They are also designed for international travelers so they tend to have a more familiar feel, which can be a welcome respite after a long day of navigating unfamiliar terrain. The bonus is having a concierge to help with restaurant recommendations and other details while you are there.

Additionally, if you feel uneasy about navigating a foreign country, there are many types of organized tours that travel together with a guide to help with all the daily interactions and choices. Big or small, budget or luxury the options are there with the perfect fit for you. I personally love to hire local English speaking guides and a driver for day tours and have found it invaluable for navigating tourist attractions where no English is spoken, but also enjoy being on our own as well for dinner and exploring in the evenings.

The bottom line is that traveling in countries with a different language is absolutely achievable and very rewarding. It can be tailored to suit your comfort level and travel style. With an open mind and the tips above, you will return feeling like you can do anything!

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