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  • Kay Davis

Learning To Communicate In A Foreign Country When You Can't Speak The Language

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

Traveling to an area where you do not speak the language can prove difficult. But over time, I’ve been given a few helpful tips from some friends who are more seasoned travelers than I am that have proven to be extremely helpful.

Traveling when you don't speak the language can be very difficult
Traveling when you don't speak the language can be very difficult

While people in many countries do not expect a tourist to speak the language fluently, I do find making a bit of an effort can pay off in the long run. Plus it’s a really good way to establish relationships that can lead to fantastic recommendations along the way.

You can quickly endear yourself with the locals if you do whatever you can to learn a few basic phrases, such as “Hello” and “Thank you” for the area you are traveling to. Also, knowing the pronunciations of numbers is extremely helpful, especially when you are trying to figure out the cost of goods, especially a cab fare or food.

I’ve used some language apps ahead of my trips to learn these key sayings and how to properly pronounce numbers 1-10. While I’m not someone who has been able to grasp one of those quick language courses, the apps I have downloaded have helped me with some key phrases during my travels.

One of the easiest ways to get around once I’m at my destination is through a translator app that I have on my phone. There are numerous ones available and I recommend having more than one on your phone just in case. It’s a great way to ask a question when you don’t know the language and also translate whatever someone is telling you.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel for work to a few locations where I was given a translator. While super helpful, I do know that’s not the norm. During these few times, I took the time to learn from their use of key phrases and even more so, the proper way to address people in the various areas of that country.

For instance, my very first trip to Italy was for work in Rome, and we had 2 intern translators for our group. Because I had another trip booked later that year along the Italian Riviera, I knew I needed to learn a few things.

So I had them teach me some common phrases to help me get around and I’m so glad I got their advice.

Hanging with my Italian intern/translator at an Irish pub in Rome in 2013
Hanging with my Italian intern/translator at an Irish pub in Rome in 2013

During my travels to the Caribbean, there are various dialects from island to island that, while based in English, have some really interesting terminology. Taxi drivers have been my go-to's for learning what the various slang terms are.

Most of the hotels I’ve stayed at had someone who spoke English. For the few homes and condo rentals I’ve made abroad, the contact has spoken English. I’ve gotten really lucky with my travels, and have met people who are as willing to teach me their language as they were to learn and practice English.

It’s a really fun way to learn a few things and every single time, I end up with a fantastic dinner recommendation that has yet to let me down.

Overall, the best thing anyone can do while traveling is to make an effort. Being an American tourist, I appreciate that many destinations I’ve been to worldwide have numerous people who speak English. But in every place I’ve been, I’ve been thanked for attempting to speak the language and have always been treated well because of that.

What other tips do you have when you travel to a place where you don’t speak the language?


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