group of people comparing paper map and smartphone
What do you do if you suddenly find yourself affronted on all sides by a language barrier?
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / piola666

How to Communicate When No One Around Speaks English

How to Communicate When You Don’t Speak the Same Language

So you’ve finally arrived at your destination after three flights, one of which you nearly missed, only to find that absolutely no one speaks English. Not the woman at the information booth at the airport, not the cab driver, or the cute guy smoking a cigarette.

Nobody. How can this be?

Our Western-centric minds often assume that surely there has to be someone around who will speak English. Why bother trying to learn the language?

But what do you do if you suddenly find yourself affronted on all sides by a language barrier? Visiting a foreign country is stressful enough with all the time and effort it takes to iron out the logistics.

How do you cope with the added hassle of trying to find your way in a strange land where you don’t even speak the language?

Use Google Translate

There are a number of different language apps out there, but none are quite as useful as the Google Translate app. Aside from detecting the language you are trying to translate into English, and doing so rather quickly, the app also has a feature that can only be described as pure wizardry.

Using the built-in camera in your phone, you can point it at a sign or other text and the app will translate it for you instantaneously! Granted, it’s not 100% grammatically correct most of the time, but it’s a start if you’re trying to figure something out or communicate in a hurry.

Draw a Picture

All those years playing Pictionary with your school friends is about to pay off. If all else fails when trying to communicate, take out a pen and paper. Even if you don’t have a notebook with you, a receipt, napkin or other piece of scrap paper will work. Draw a picture of what you’re trying to talk about.

If you need to know where the toilet is, draw one, or write down WC (for water closet). If you really want pizza, make a triangle with longer sides and draw dots all over it. In general, people are pretty visual, so they’ll eventually get it even if you can only draw shapes and stick figures.

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Learn Basic Words in the Native Language

Hopefully you didn’t decide to visit a country without knowing a single word in the native language, but if that’s the case, it’s never too late to learn. If you’ve brought a phrasebook with you, pick out a few basic words and/or phrases to learn.

For example, if you are traveling in a Spanish speaking country, these are some essential Spanish phrases you should familiarize yourself with. At some point, you’ll likely need directions somewhere, so knowing the words for left and right are helpful. Question words such as what, when and where will also come in handy.

Then, of course, we can’t forget toilet, grocery store and ATM, which believe it or not, isn’t always called an ATM in another language. With these basic words memorized, you can at least make an attempt to communicate in the local language.

If you are traveling with a dietary restriction or medical condition, you should definitely learn how to communicate your health requirements in the local language so you can get the assistance you need. This may require memorizing a few different phrases to help get your point across.

These tips for learning a new language while traveling will also help you pick up the local lingo more easily.

Point or Use Hand Gestures

If you’ve chosen to visit a country where the language is rather difficult and even basic words escape you, pointing or using hand gestures may be effective. While this strategy may not work in every situation, ordering food at restaurants can usually be done by pointing to something on a menu or what’s being served at another table.

When trying to find a place, it helps to use gestures to indicate where you’re going and pointing to a map if one’s accessible. If you don’t mind making a bit of a fool of yourself, sounds can help you get your point across as well.

Be cautious when using this technique, however. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the cultural norms of the area you’re visiting — the last thing you want is to offend someone and not be able to apologize or explain to them what you meant!

Find a Tourist Office or Hotel

If you’re desperate and happen to be in a touristy area, hotels and tourist offices generally have multilingual staff. Since they often deal with foreigners, it’s likely someone there will actually speak English.

Even if no one on the staff speaks it well, there’s a possibility there might be other English-speakers around who might be able to help. A lot of Europeans are bilingual or multilingual, so it doesn’t hurt to ask other tourists if they speak English.

Other Americans might not be as helpful in understanding the local language, but sometimes even being able to talk to someone in your native tongue for five minutes is enough to make you feel a little less alone.

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