Language Barrier? 5 Tips for Navigating a Language Barrier Abroad

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It can be unnerving to visit a new place, and not knowing the language can make that somewhat daunting. Do not let fear ruin your adventures or the places you choose to visit! With technology, a language barrier has never been easier to navigate. There will always be some hiccups that arise when you travel, and it is crucial to the enjoyment of travel to learn to roll with it. Having some strategies to navigate the uncertainty of a language barrier can help put you at ease when you find yourself in a situation that requires some problem-solving.

1. Learn 5-10 Key Phrases to Assist with a Language Barrier

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Photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent on

Studying several crucial words and phrases before your international trip is good practice. It can really help in a pickle. Additionally, it gives the impression that you are making an effort, which can help avoid negative first impressions that you are rude or ignorant. Like many Americans, I only speak one language fluently. This limitation can be seen as a bit of a fault when you’re abroad. I’ve been trying to brush up on my Spanish as a result. When we traveled to France, it made a difference when we greeted people with a friendly “bonjour.” Even at home in the United States, it can be rude to begin asking questions before a basic greeting. A little effort can go a long way! 

2. Do Some Advance Research on the Prevalence of English

We are lucky as English speakers that it is common for people to speak English as a second language. Do some basic googling to see if it’s common for people to speak some English at your destination. We noticed far more English speakers in Paris than in the smaller French city, Dijon. However, we got by in both places and could reasonably communicate. Don’t assume that everyone speaks English! This assumption can come across as entitled. Try to learn how to ask if they speak English. 

3. Use Google Translate’s Camera Function

The camera function on Google Translate is really quite remarkable. You can easily snap a picture and select the language you’re translating to/from. Test out any new technology in the comforts of home before you’re on your trip. This camera function is immensely useful for things like menus, so you can ensure you order food that suits your tastes. As travelers who love trying local cuisine, we like to know what food we’re ordering. Translating a menu picture also saves you from asking numerous questions to wait staff who may not speak English. Another use I found for this was signs. Translating signs helped us not wander into places we weren’t supposed to be. It also helped us discover more about a specific location and its history. This function could be especially useful in museums, so you know what you are looking at. The translation software isn’t perfect, but it is good enough to decipher the basics. 

4. Utilize Google Translate’s Speaker and Typing Function

If you find yourself in a predicament where you have something specific to say but don’t have the vocabulary to say it, type in what you need to communicate to Google Translate. This simple act will give you a rough translation that you could either attempt to say or show to the person you are trying to communicate with. I used this to ask a question to someone on a train when the train we were on was delayed. He didn’t speak English, and I had to ask how we got refunded for our connecting train. He was able to use Google Translate on his phone to give me a rough idea of where to go for the ticket refund. I also used the speaker function on the train. The conductor made several announcements when the train stopped. I used the speaker function to translate some of what the conductor said. I learned by doing this that we were delayed 55 minutes due to electrical maintenance. Otherwise, I would have been confused about what was happening. 

5. When in Doubt, Gesture in the event of a Language Barrier

person doing thumbs up, Gestures to aid in a Language Barrier
Photo by Donald Tong on

It may be wise to ensure your gestures aren’t obscene in a different culture first, but this practice can be immensely helpful. Some simple things that can help communicate are pointing at what you’d like to order on the menu, pointing at your ticket stub to find your seat, and using a smile to express gratitude. We used this tip a lot on our trip to Costa Rica. It is possible to communicate a lot of information with facial and body movements that are somewhat universal. It is even better to attempt first to say in the local language that you only speak English before moving to gestures. 

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