“I can’t go there, I don’t speak the language.”
Many people don’t want to travel because they don’t speak any other language than their native language and are scared of being misunderstood, not understanding anybody and not being able to manage anything. It is a classic category 1 fear.
First thing: You don’t need to be able to speak the language to travel somewhere. It sure helps, but it is not needed.
I have travelled the length of Italy, all around Egypt, all around Tonga, many places in China, the Netherlands, Belgium, Singapore and the U.A.E without speaking the language at all and without taking a tour.
Many people, especially in the travel industry speak English, and as you are reading this site, I’m going to assume you have a fairly good command of it.
Most hotels and hostels will have English speaking staff. If you are really scared, you can send an email inquiring before hand, but it shouldn’t be an issue. I’ve been in many places where they only spoke Chinese, or Italian and I only spoke English
Even on the street some people are likely to speak a little English although this varies depending on country and region.
There are multiple phrase books out there that will help your learn a little, and a little will go a long way. With a good phrase book in hand you will be able to get to communicate in a lot of situations. Getting one with an audio component is a good idea, so you can hear what it sounds like.
Learning some of the language is not only great for helping you get around, but will also give you an insight into the culture and is valuable within it’s self.
Although this can be hard if you are travelling through areas with multiple languages.
If you have an Smartphone then there are Smartphone apps that you can get that will translate what you want to say. These are more multi-functional than phrase books.
Another option instead of Smartphone apps, is to get an electronic translator.
This is a great tool if you don’t have a Smartphone. Like Smartphone apps, just plug in what you want to say in your language and it will translate it into another language. This requires more planning but I have used it to back up my dismal Mandarin tones when getting train tickets. Copy and Paste the English and Mandarin from Google translate into a word document and print. All the details are there.
This small picture dictionary is full of photos of all sorts of things that will help you get around. Images are great! They speak a universal language – just point at the picture.
Brook vs The World has a cool PDF with a load of useful icons that you can use as a reference while travelling. It’s free.
When you are speaking to someone who speaks very little English, or are trying to communicate using their language, don’t speak louder; slow down. Loud jibberish is still jibberish. If you speak slower and clearly, then the jibberish might start to become decipherable.
Make sure you don’t string your words together. Stress each one. Don’t let the main culprits ‘to, in, of, as, and’ become blurred in with other words in your sentence.
Don’t Use Contractions
Separate the ‘can’t’ to ‘can not’ and the ‘I’ll’ to ‘I will’. Make your words distinct separate entities.
Try not to use Idioms
There are the obvious ones like “It’s raining cats and dogs” – never say that to a foreign person. 🙂 Sometimes less obvious idioms will slip into speech. Stay aware of them and avoid using them.
Don’t use slang or Jargon
Likewise stay away from using slang or jargon.
Don’t worry about Grammar
If you say a complete grammatically correct sentence, you can overwhelm people. Try shortening it down to a few key words, such as instead of, “Excuse me, can you tell me where the taxis are please?,” try ” Where taxi please?”. It will be easier to get the main point across.
Also drop articles, especially if you are travelling in East Asia. There are no articles in Chinese dialects, or in Japanese.
Don’t be afraid to mime, draw and use body language to get your point across. Don’t let embarrassment get to you, just laugh it off.
If it all sounds too hard and you need some hand holding to get you started off then:
Take a tour.
If you are really worried, then taking a tour might be a good idea, especially if it is your first time travelling. They are typically a lot more expensive and I avoid them like the plague because I like doing this at my own pace and don’t like being talked at. It will get your feet wet though and you will have a better idea of what is really out there.
Visit a place that speaks the same language as you do.
It would be a shame if you restricted yourself to only countries with the same language. You’d miss out on a lot, and if you speak something like Farsi this might be a bit hard. If you speak English on the other hand then there are numerous options. The USA, the U.K, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Malta, South Africa….
Don’t let language barriers keep you from travelling. There are many solutions and strategies to work around it, and half the fun is working around it.