In addition to my love of travel, I have always loved and been fascinated by foreign languages: how we can experience the same world but express it in such different ways and with such a mixture of sounds. If, like me, you are a native English speaker then, like me, you have been handed a gift on a golden platter, because so much of the world uses English as a common or second language. But that doesn’t mean you can always rely on other people’s language skills to save the day. So how do you cope when you are in a country where you can’t speak the language? What about when even the alphabet isn’t the same? Here are a few of my tips for dealing with being lost in translation.
The advice below is primarily aimed at native English speakers, because that is the world I have experienced. Do you have a different first language? Do you have similar experiences from back before you could speak English well? Or have you found things to be very different for you? I would love to hear your stories in the comments section!
As an English speaker, we are normally in a nice, safe bubble: we can always find someone to help us who speaks English, right? But when that bubble bursts and we realise no-one can understand a word we’re saying, it can be a scary thing.
The key in these situations is not to turn and run; think it through and you will find a way to communicate. You know all those people who don’t speak English but manage to travel anyway? They survived, and so will you! Don’t be tempted to walk away and take the easy way out; with a bit of perseverance you can make yourself understood, and often these moments can be the most memorable encounters of your trip.
Make use of technology
I was recently in Taiwan, where the dominant language is Mandarin. I don’t speak it, and I definitely don’t read it. But I have a smartphone and know how to use it! In advance of my trip I downloaded a translation app, and this got me out of a couple of situations.
On my first day in Taiwan, I wanted an authentic lunch and visited a street food stall. The owner didn’t speak a word of English and I had no idea what was in the beautiful little dumplings she was selling. Taking pot luck wasn’t an option as I don’t eat meat, so out came my phone. I typed the words “no meat” into my translator and showed the stall owner the resulting Chinese translation. A nod and a smile, and she selected a number of dumplings which were vegetarian and delicious. I can’t imagine having been able to do that a few years ago, and it makes me eternally grateful for modern technology!
On the same trip, I visited a very modern coffeehouse in Tainan, in the south of Taiwan (which I have written more about in “The coffee seller of Tainan”). The owner had amazing coffee and I wanted to chat about his passion, but his very limited English and my non-existent Mandarin made it impossible to get across what I wanted to say. Again, my trusty translation app did the job, and enabled me to explain that I like good black coffee because I was first introduced to coffee-drinking in France (a phrase I couldn’t really mime!). Who cares if the translation wasn’t perfect – it did the trick, and quickly dispelled the myth that the British only drink instant coffee!
Invest in internet on the go
Now, this does depend on your destination, but many major cities have impressive free wifi schemes, or at least 4G internet. Struggling because the signs are only in the local language? Need to know how to get to your destination, or maybe some information on what to do when you get there? Hop onto that wifi, or consider getting a local sim card or mobile wifi dongle, and you can Google to your heart’s content. Many countries allow you to hire sim cards or mobile wifi at the airport (I have done this myself in Taiwan and South Korea), and it is a godsend. Having access on the road to the same resources you had on your sofa at home will make life so much easier.
Cellphones can even enable you to translate restaurant menus by holding the camera above the phrase you want to translate. If you can get internet access on the go, it is 100% worth the money.
NB: NEVER use data roaming on your normal home contract unless you have thoroughly researched the cost. If you’re lucky, it may be cheap or even included in your normal monthly payment – for example, if your home network is in an EU country and you are travelling to another EU country. But roaming costs can be pretty devastating. I accidentally left mine on when I flew to Malaysia, and only realised when I landed, switched on my phone and immediately got a Facebook notification. I switched it straight off, and it was only active for about 30 seconds, but those 30 seconds cost me $20. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if I’d left it on for longer.
Download offline maps
When the street signs are in another alphabet, it can make getting around a challenge. Consider downloading an app such as Maps.me in advance. These apps allow you to download a map of your destination in advance, so that you can use it on the go without needing a data connection. And the road names will be in English characters – phew!
Throw embarrassment to the wind… and mime!
If technology doesn’t do the trick and you are still struggling, resort to the time-honoured tradition of making a fool of yourself. It’s actually a great ice-breaker, as nothing relieves an awkward and confusing encounter like making your conversation partner laugh their head off! But it generally works. My personal favourite was in Brazil, where English really isn’t widely spoken at all. I walked into a pharmacy looking for insect repellent, having for some reason not realised that a tropical coastline would be Mecca for mosquitoes. And yes, I had to mime a mosquito bite, complete with buzzing sound, swooping fingers and poking myself in the arm. I felt like an idiot, but hey, I got the mozzie spray!
Try out the other languages in your arsenal
If you speak a language other than English, it’s always worth a try. For example, in Brazil the local language is Portuguese, but Spanish is not dissimilar and is spoken by nearly all the other countries in South America – whose citizens often visit Brazil. As a result, if someone doesn’t speak any English they may well be able to understand a few words of Spanish.
Other countries are former European colonies and therefore understand languages that you might not expect. The main language of Madagascar is Malagasy, but nearly everyone in the tourist industry speaks French. School children also learn French, so it’s possible to interact with them directly if you speak that language. And my limited knowledge of Russian was a godsend in Moldova, where it is the second language and the only one I could make myself understood in. Asking for 2 bottles of Diet Coke in Russian was a proud moment!
Learn a few words of the local language anyway
Now, in an ideal world I would use the time between booking a trip and setting off to learn the language to a sufficient level that I can communicate. But let’s be honest, we have jobs and social lives and the time isn’t available. But that doesn’t stop us from learning a few words. “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please” and “Thank you” are the expressions I always try to master, and they almost invariably make a difference. Even if you then have to continue in English (or interpretative mime!), the effort to speak those few words shows respect. Plus it’s fun!
What have been your experiences with getting by in other languages? Any top tips or funny stories? Let me know in the comments below!
If you’re looking for more travel advice and inspiration, check out these posts!
My top 10 travel tips
Small group travel: Is it right for you?
Solo travel: Why you don’t need to be brave to travel alone
The view from the airplane window
The World is a Book: What travel means to me
Top travel health tips you need to know
Travel culture shock: What it is and how to handle it
When travel plans go wrong
Traditional dance around the world: Dance genres to see on your travels
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I’m Jill, and I’m a British blogger who has been travelling for more than 15 years, visiting 65+ countries on 6 continents. I love to travel both solo and with groups, and to discover the cultures and peoples of the countries I visit. And I love to share a good story or two along the way!