As exciting as it is to travel to a foreign country, especially somewhere you’ve never been before, the idea of communicating in a foreign language can be really intimidating. If you’re a native English speaker, or know English well, there is definitely an advantage - but not everyone speaks English. Depending on where you go, you may end up in a situation where you have to communicate to someone that does not know a word of anything beyond their native language.
There are a few helpful things that you can keep in mind before you go somewhere where a foreign language will be required. The following four ideas are particularly useful as you try to navigate.
Language Barriers: How to Handle Them When Traveling
1. Obtain Local Maps Ahead of Time
In most major metropolitan cities, you can download city map apps ahead of time, and many of them don’t require the internet during use. This is especially helpful when trying to navigate a foreign subway system for the first time. It’s good to know that you can pull out your map, find where you are, and have a sense of direction. This also helps others to help you when you ask for directions!
2. Bring a Phrasebook
Most foreigners appreciate it when you try to speak their language. Bring along a phrasebook that helps you with some key survival phrases, like “excuse me,” “where is the bathroom?” or “how do I get to this metro stop?” People will try to speak English to you if they can; otherwise, they might be able to refer to your phrasebook to translate something back into English for you.
3. Gain an Understanding of the Local Culture
Understand the country’s culture about talking to strangers. While the United States is pretty friendly to strangers, other countries are not, and that can be off-putting when you have just arrived somewhere. For example, in many parts of Asia, it is very impolite to ask someone on the street for directions - you’re better off going into a shop and talking to the shop’s owner. In Russia, people do not smile at each other on the street and are not friendly to people they do not know personally, but are generally very helpful if you ask someone on the street how to get somewhere. Do some research before you go, so that you feel confident about whom to ask for what.
4. Take Language Lessons
Learning a new language is fun! Whether you’re in a different country for just a few days or several weeks or months, even something as small as a one-hour tutorial can give you huge confidence in your navigation of a new place. You’ll feel really proud of yourself as you say “please” and “thank you” like a local, and you’ll also be able to relax a little more and enjoy your travels to a greater degree.
Language Barriers to Communication: Final Thoughts
At the end of the day, it is very important to understand that most people are kind and want to help you! When you’re in a new place, it is common to go through culture shock and feel more nervous than normal to speak up and ask a question or try to have a conversation. In a situation where you need directions somewhere, it is important to reassure yourself that most people are kind and willing to help. There are so many heartwarming stories out there about foreigners who were helped by locals in a new country - the smallest experiences can leave a huge impression on you, and you’ll be telling these stories for years. So challenge yourself to go out of your comfort zone to speak to someone new, language barrier or not - chances are you won’t regret it!
This article was written by Cathy Trainor.