Dealing with Language Barriers in Travel

Last Updated on August 25, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa

moving overseas, language barriers, communication ideas,Do you need to learn the language of the country before moving there?

Sometimes I find myself making more excuses not to do something, than to do it. It’s all unconscious, of course… worry, self-doubt, fear and/or anxiety. I usually start with “WHAT IF” and end with either, “…I’m not enough” or “…I can’t.”

Sound familiar?

This is a common problem we all go through this at some point, and more often than we think. We create unnecessary obstacles between ourselves and our dreams. We undo ourselves with negative self-images and by not feeling we are “enough”. In the worst case scenario, we end up exaggerating that negative self-image to the point we build impossibility into our goal.

And yet, we see another person with the same goal, simply walk on through, with no issue, no strife and sometimes, much less experience… How can this be?

Well, these are two different people with different ways of seeing the situation. The first person sees limitation in themselves; while the other, sees only the goal and their desire to get it.

Which person are you?


Today’s post comes from a video response to a Travel Q & A from 18 year old Rayen…

18 year old Rayen has a longtime dream to live in and travel Japan. He’s learning Japanese but is worried that it may not be enough to get him around. Here’s what I have to say concerning his question

Note: the video and written post do not have the same information.

If you’re not seeing this video, click here

Do you need to learn the language of the country before moving there?

No. You don’t have to learn the language at all. Okay, I know that sounds culturally ignorant to say. But…

Creating obstacles  where there aren’t any

I personally, think everyone should learn the language of where they live. But if you’re talking about holding off a long-time dream because you worry  you don’t know the language well enough, then I don’t see that as a strong reason to put off plans. I see it as creating an obstacle for your dream, where there is none. (We all do this)

Many times we try to be perfect. We try to have all our bases covered before we make the jump. But it’s not necessary. Travelers and expats go to Japan on a daily basis, with no knowledge of the Japanese language. They’re convinced they’ll do what they can to survive the language barrier. They don’t see a language barrier as a big enough barrier to keep them from their dreams.

Also, everyone has personal goals, priorities and what they want to get out of their experience in a country. For instance, when I was living in Korea, I met expats from around the world, who had no desire to learn the Korean language, despite the fact they were hoping to live there two or more years. Shocking, right? Like the analogy I made in my last video of “datable vs marriageable countries”… some expats have planned in their heads, a short-termed marriage. So they don’t feel learning a new language will be beneficial to their future in the long run. Why would you spend your time learning Swahili if you were only going to need it for two years and never use it again?

Watch:  How to decide where to live abroad?

There will always be language barriers and culture shock.

Keep in mind, where ever you go, whether you’ve learned the language or are practicing it, you’re still going to encounter moments of vulnerability and helplessness, because the culture is different. There are always going to be words you don’t know and situations you never prepared for.  We think we’ll try to be cool… it doesn’t happen! Awkward and dopey is how it feels at best. So have fun with it!

Most think language barriers are stressful. Yeah, they can be. I have posts about my crisis with language barriers and culture shock (here  and here).  

How to Deal with Language Barriers

If you go to a foreign country with no prior experience with its language, you’re going to do whatever it takes to communicate  and get your idea across. Especially, if it’s vital.

1.   You’re going to mime, draw pictures, point at things…  (this is how I got my Korean mobile plan! I don’t recommend it for this situation, by the way)

2.  Travel survival phrasebook  (I bought a Korean phrasebook to help me get by)

3.  Master the four golden phrases (these are handy in any country):

– Hello

— Thank you

—  Where is it?

— How much is it?

 WatchHow to Teach English in Korea/Japan without knowing the language

Learning the language of the country will enhance your experience of the country

Of course, having mastery of the language is ideal. It’s only going to enhance your experience of the country and make your stay more comfortable and enriching.  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’.

Why you shouldn’t worry about language inadequacy?

Keep in mind, even though you haven’t mastered the language yet, you will be immersed in the culture. You’ll probably learn more effectively, because you’ll be using the language on a daily basis and for essential things. Survival has a way of pushing your learning in an accelerated way. You’ll also  pick up the Japanese language quicker in Japan, than at home. Unless you have a language partner that you’re constantly practicing with, it won’t be as good as living in the country itself and speaking to locals and being immersed in an environment ,where few people know English and you need to use Japanese for survival.

Note: Apologies also to Rayen for the mistaken name and gender. =(

Any tips or advice on this topic? Disagree or agree? Do you need to learn the language of the country before moving there? Spill…

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • […] an international city but English is still not a widely used language. Therefore, travel survival tools for unblocking language barriers are:  taking a travel survival phrase book, learning some survival phrases, taking a map to point […]

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  • I knew maybe five words of Chinese before I moved to Shanghai. During the two years I lived there, I learned enough Chinese to get me through my daily activities, like shopping and taking the taxi, but not enough to have a meaningful conversation with the locals. It was hard to practice because everyone wanted to talk to me in English. But they also appreciated that I made the effort to learn their language.

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  • Great post. I think it’s very helpful to learn the new language, but you brought up some good points about not letting it hold you back from your dreams. I did learn Hangul on the plane before coming to Korea for the first time, and it did help though.

    Since I’m gonna be here for awhile though, I figure it would benefit me to become somewhat fluent in the language.

    • Christine Kaaloa
      February 21, 2014 12:25 am

      @DomHyo: ha ha… the overnight plane language class can help. Every little bit does, I believe. Yeah, the longer you intend to stay in a country it really enhances the quality of your lifestyle. Not understanding what folks are saying about you can really push many of us over as well as, just the standard things like filling out apps and dealing with important docs.

  • Great post girl! I strongly believe that knowing the local language (at least a few words and some basic grammar) is incredibly useful when moving to a new country. I learnt some Chinese before coming here and thanks to that I could easily survive in any situation!

    • Christine Kaaloa
      February 21, 2014 12:22 am

      Thanks for sharing @Agness! Kudos to you for learning Chinese. I think that’s gotta be one of the hardest Asian languages.