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How to Deal With Language Barriers When Traveling Abroad


Foreign travel is a wonderful way to see the world. Everything is different, and fresh, and exciting. As long as you know what it is you’re admiring. Some travel is easier than others. If you’re planning a trip to a country whose language you don’t know, it’s understandable that you may be a little nervous about the barrier. Rest assured, many before you have traveled to every country on the globe, probably knowing even less than you do.

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But if you can, you probably don’t want to make a fool out of yourself, or worse, get yourself into a bad situation. Here are some tips to make life a little easier, and understandable, when you go on your next international trip abroad.

Key Phrases

It’s preferable to actually know another language, or maybe you studied a language in school, and those are great tools for when you travel. Usually, though, wherever you’re going you won’t know the language. Romance languages are handy this way, actually, so if you’re going to Europe and you studied Spanish in school, you may find Portugal or Italy a piece of cake, but Vietnam would be a different story.

Learn the things you absolutely need to know. Don’t worry about tense, or sentence construction, you’re speaking in one to two word sentences, which makes you feel hopeless, but the person listening to you tends to take pity – clearly you’re a tourist. When you say, “bathroom?” everyone knows what you mean. In turn, your answer should be as easy to understand and broken up, too.

Use Your Body

Before you read on, make sure you check the customs of the country you’re visiting – some hand gestures are not the same as they are in America! But many are exactly the same, so pointing, putting up your hand in thanks and nodding your head gets you a lot farther than you may think. At a restaurant, point to your item and say please. In fact, no matter what, of you always pepper in a lot of pleases and thank you’s, and you’re going to be just fine.

Get A Guide

Some places are difficult to visit on your own. Japanese is quite different from any Romance language, and it has a different alphabet. A lovely, beautiful country, but they do not, as many places, speak much, if any, English. But that shouldn’t stop you from booking a trip to a very different country. Consider hiring a guide, either for the day, or for the duration, which is a particularly good idea if you have a large group. Guides know strange customs and can perfectly speak both your language and your visiting country’s. If you’re traveling alone, you can also join a guided group trip.

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Get An App

There’s an app for everything. The travel industry has its fair share of apps, with everything from transit maps to currency converters, there’s no shortage of options that, honestly, can make your head spin.

Translation apps are great to have in a bind, however. Most do require data, so take that into consideration, but make sure to get a voice recognition app, where you can speak the phrase and get the translation. Others allow for type in translation, which is handy at a museum or a restaurant or a shop. The best apps to get are TripLingo, which may be free if your destination’s native tongue lies in the 20 languages included in the basic version. And if you get into a big problem, there’s a feature where you can actually connect with a human translator (for a large fee).

For that trip to Japan, you probably want to download Waygo, which has a camera translation tool for Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese. You just hold the camera over the letters, and presto, English translation. Waygo does not have voice recognition capabilities, so you need to get TripLingo, too. Both apps should work offline, though they may have some limited features.

The idea of traveling without being able to understand anyone is scary, but these days travelers go all over the world, and it’s becoming commonplace to run into a non-English speaker, so relax and have fun with your discoveries!

Have you ever said the entirely wrong thing to someone in another country? Comment with your funny translation stories below!


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How to Deal With Language Barriers When Traveling Abroad

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