How to Deal with Language Barriers when Traveling

Last Updated on January 11, 2024 by Christine Kaaloa

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How to deal with language barriers

Beneath the excitement of travel, many travelers often hear that tiny voice that whispers: How do I deal with language barriers when traveling?

Most solo travelers and expats think language barriers are going to be too overwhelming to manage navigating a country on their own. Yeah, they can feel that way. I have posts about my crisis with language barriers and culture shock (here  and here).  

Do I need to learn the language of the country before traveling there?

Millions embark on trips each year with little to no knowledge of the local language. You’re not alone! While exploration and cultural immersion are key aspects of travel, mastering a language before every trip isn’t always necessary.

Yes, I adore learning languages and have a basic foundation in several. However, I haven’t “mastered” the languages of every country I’ve visited, nor did I feel compelled to learn basic survival phrases. Even when I spent a year living and working in Korea, my Korean was minimal. It wasn’t easy, but I navigated the language barrier.

The beauty of travel is that, without a shared language, you discover ingenious ways to communicate. When faced with language barriers, solo travelers, our own safety nets, must get creative. We use gestures, smiles, and improvised charades to make ourselves understood. It’s part of the adventure!

There will be words you don’t know and situations you’ve never anticipated. You’re guaranteed to stumble, so embrace it! Rather than stressing about language barriers, learn to have fun with them. Who knows what hilarious misunderstandings and unexpected connections might arise?

 

How to Deal with Language Barriers when Traveling

1. Buy an e-SIM or personal WiFi hotspot

First, I highly recommend getting connected when you’re abroad. Staying connected to the internet and your bevy of tools like Google Translate and Google Maps are going to give you an advantage and lower your translation barriers significantly.

Forget high roaming fees or spending your trip chasing local SIM cards (been there, done that!). Buying a local SIM card is often the cheapest option but only valid if you have an unlocked phone. But hunting down local SIM card dealers or troubleshooting them when your connection goes funky wastes a lot of time. I’d only recommend this way for travelers who will be traveling a country for longer than two weeks. 

Better options are to buy and activate an Airalo eSIM or 5G mobile WiFi hotspot before you leave home!

Tip: Download Google Translate & Maps to help with language barriers

2. Learn Travel Survival Phrases

It is not necessary to learn a language or memorize complete or polite phrases.

Please do not waste your brain learning unnecessary or redundant formal phrases like “Do you speak English?”  The moment you speak English, a local will either repeat it back to you or not.  Duh.

Instead, equip yourself the basics:  “thank you,” “please,” “where is…. “, “how much….”

You can add words for specific dietary obstacles you want to avoid to build your conversational one-to-two word toolkit.

3. Merge Broken Language + another aid

It is okay to use broken bits of language to hobble your way through a communication.

The English language is filled with fatty words that many countries do not use like a and the, etc… Other languages drop much of it; their sentence structures are economical and verb followed by direct object.

I’ll often use a broken phrase and then use an aid like mime or show a map, etc.. Like where? (in the country language)… while shrugging shoulders and pointing to a map or photo.

4. Take a snapshot

One traveler I met made picture cards for the specific places they wanted to visit and foods they wanted to eat!  I won’t go that far, but I’ll take a photo of something and show it to a local  to help me find it.

5. Have a local write your phrase in their language

Directions, addresses, words like “I am vegetarian” are all things I’ve had a local food tour operator or hotel concierges write for me, so that I could show it to a bus driver or restaurant worker.

Tip: When in Asian or Arabic countries which use special characters for numbers and letters, always have a local write your hotel address in their language.  When I was in Yangon, I didn’t think that numbers would have different characters for Burmese. See my tip for Taking the bus in Burma. Even if you have no desire to travel to Burma, the tips may come in handy if you plan to use public transportation elsewhere.

6. Mime

If you look at sign language, you’ll notice a lot can be communicated in gestures and signs. Welp,…

One of the most basic travel tips when dealing with language barriers is miming.  We’ve all played charades where body movements, facial gestures, pointing and drawing (this is how I got my Korean mobile plan! ) are visual aids that help us communicate an idea.


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7. Mobile Translation Apps

Google Translate can offer translation magic. I’ve used Google Translate a lot in Japan where they use different characters like Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji.  Google translate works like a charm and can help decode signs.

Camera Scanning: It has an awesome camera scanning feature I used in Japan to decode the food ingredients and names of beauty supplies and vitamins that I wanted to buy!  Check out how I used it in that Shibuya video clip below.

Speak/Recording: Google Translate has a bucket of translation features where you can speak into the recorder and it will output your words in the foreign language. Note: it’s not perfect as there can always be translation/interpretations with certain languages.

While the idea of translation devices is a good one, I’ve tried many language translation devices that require extra powering or a WiFi connection to operate.  With Google Translate, the app is on my mobile device powered by my e-Sim.

Get my Tokyo Travel Secrets ebook 

How I used Google Translate to translate restaurant menus in Japan

8. Local Immersion

Diving into music, movies, even children’s shows before you arrive in a country can help you in more ways than you know. The sounds and rhythms of the language, even subconsciously, will ease communication later and you may begin to observe cultural cues that give certain words or phrases context ad meaning.

9.  Travel survival phrasebook

When I moved to Korea, I bought a Korean phrasebook to help me get by. I also bought Living Language CDs and books to study and took a Korean language class at my local YMCA in Daegu.

Embrace the fun and success of language barriers

Even if you’re hitting language barriers, the important thing to remember is you’re making an effort to communicate in a foreign country. You’re trying to build a bridge to a culture and this helps you to observe, listen, mimick and hopefully, pick up the fine bits of how locals communicate.

Mistakes are stepping stones

Don’t let the fear of mispronunciations hold you back. Embrace them as learning opportunities and laugh at yourself. Sometimes, broken English builds the strongest bridges.

Celebrate small victories

Ordering your coffee in the local language, deciphering a bus ticket, asking a station master for directions by pointing fingers or even understanding a joke – these are triumphs worth celebrating. They are fun reminders of the progress of your efforts

Focus on connection. Not perfection

Language is a tool for connection, not a test of fluency.  Don’t get caught up in grammar or vocabulary. You don’t have to get it all perfect.  Focus on the message you want to convey, use your creativity!

 While learning basic phrases can certainly be helpful, don’t let the fear of language barriers deter you from exploring the world. Embrace the challenge, be resourceful, and remember, sometimes, laughter is the best translator. Remember, how you deal with language barriers can be a unique and enriching part of your travel experience.

Language Barriers for Expats Living Abroad

Should I learn the language of the country I want to move to?

I’ve known many expats in Korea who did not learn the language until their third year into it and they realized they wanted to stay. So you can still get around culture and society pretty decently without learning the language. It will occasionally be uncomfortable as you’ll need local friends to translate things for you.

If you were planning to teach abroad or you planned to live in a foreign country for an extended time however, and you were going to be a working citizen of a country, where you need to pay taxes or open a bank account and set up utility bills on your own, then learning the country language would only enhance your experience greatly.  You’ll find more ease and understanding in the society to aid your life and to make you feel less helpless. You’ll have an easy time getting around, reading menus, conversing and bonding with locals, you’ll be able to figure out if you’re buying ‘shampoo’ or ‘conditioner’. Read 12 Common Language Barriers that Screw You when living abroad. Watch:  How to decide where to live abroad?

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 Watch How to Teach English in Korea/Japan

Dealing with language barriers in travel and living abroad? Spill…

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