Tips for overcoming language barriers
Tackle these language basics to get around safely and easily in a foreign country.
Speaking in a country’s native language while traveling abroad can expose you to new opportunities and experiences, or simply help you figure out where the heck you are. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or time to confidently get around and earn the respect of the locals. Here’s a breakdown of the most important phrases to master, the importance of nonverbal communication and the tools that will make finding the restroom so much easier.
Learn to say “hello,” “goodbye” and other niceties
Putting in a little effort to learn some basic phrases will make your trip more pleasant. Use the following expressions as a guide to get around safely and avoid embarrassing situations.
- “Please” and “thank you” (Don’t underestimate the power of manners and etiquette)
- “Where is …” (Find out what’s important to you while traveling whether it be the train, museum, restroom or coffee shop, and learn to say those things.)
- “Yes” or “no” (While these most common answers to a question are universally understood, folks will appreciate your use of the native language.)
- I don’t speak … (It’s the get-out-of-jail-free card if you don’t understand a local, or if they are speaking to you too quickly.)
- “How much does it cost?” (Also become familiar with the currency exchange rates before wheeling and dealing.)
- “Does this food contain …” or “I’m allergic to …” (If you have food allergies – or a severe medical condition – make sure you and your traveling companions can alert others to those issues.
Don’t be afraid to try or ask a local for help with pronunciation. If you’re worried you won’t remember basic phrases, simply write them down in a small notebook or make a note in your phone.
Communicate without words
The spoken language is only one form of communication. The majority of our feelings and intentions are communicated through nonverbal cues. Facial expressions and body language convey feelings just as effectively as words. Use this to your advantage when trying to ask a question or order a meal. Point to an item on a menu if necessary, or describe a monument using hand gestures. Just be aware that some signals are offensive in other cultures.
Travel tip: in France, the thumb is considered the first digit when counting with your fingers. If you hold up two fingers (index and middle finger), you’ll get three of whatever you’re ordering, not two.
From comparing hotel accommodations to reading hundreds of reviews on the best place to get wiener schnitzel, there are tools and resources available for nearly every aspect of planning the perfect trip. Technology also has allowed us to communicate more effectively than ever before. Travel + Leisure compiled a list of the best translation apps for travelers.
Google Translate instantly translates words, phrases and webpages between English and more than 100 other languages. Download the free app (iOS and Android) for easy, on-the-go access, and use your phone’s camera to translate signs or handwritten notes. You also can download “language packs” to translate languages without an internet connection.
If you’re looking to break the ice and build rapport with locals, TripLingo allows you to learn essential phrases, instantly translate your voice or connect to a live translator and get a crash course on the local culture. The phrasebook includes formal, casual, slang and “crazy” options for more than 2,000 phrases per language. The app also addresses safety measures, helping you access emergency contact numbers, alert someone to a food allergy, etc.
For travelers who want to learn more than just the basics, Duolingo is a gamified language app that encourages daily practice. The bite-sized lessons include a variety of speaking, listening, translation and multiple-choice challenges. You instantly see which answers you get correct and earn points to move to the next level. It also motivates you to stay on track by recording how many days in a row you spend learning a language. The app is free to iOS and Android users.
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