Travel Tips
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How I Deal With Language Barrier While Travelling

trekking

I remember when I was leaving for my first solo trip I was more doubtful than ever. I was scared and I feared that I won’t be able to survive for long. Would it be safe? Would the journey be interesting? How would I make friends on the road? I had a million questions going through my mind. But out of all the doubt, one thing that bothered me the most was dealing with the language barrier! 

Last week, a reader asked me on Facebook if the local languages can make his solo travelling in North of India tough. He belonged from the South. In his words “Is language a barrier to travelling? I was planning to travel the north of India next month but I don’t know Hindi. Can it be a problem? PS: I am travelling solo!”

“PS I am travelling solo” — his message ended with the most important part!

A solo traveller is always scared of a new language, not until he has experienced a few journeys. I remember I tried so hard to learn a few phrases in Dzonkha, using the internet, before I travelled Bhutan — my first ever solo journeys. But as I travelled a little more, familiarized myself to the art of long-term travelling, I realised that language makes from a little to no impact, on our survival. But if the idea of travelling was more than just survival, and you wanted to know the country’s local culture, then language plays a significant difference.

I have missed a lot during my journeys while travelling through places where local language made no sense to me. Yet, learning a new language, right from the scratch, was never a viable solution. So, I kept myself limited to learning a few phrases.

Learn A Few Phrases

Naga people

Not just I am a solo traveller, I am someone who loves exploring offbeat places. And every two months I find myself travelling a place, where the native language is totally different than the others I’ve travelled in the past. So learning a new language, right from the scratch, is not possible. This is also because of personal inabilities (call me a slow learner!). But even if I was quick at it, I wouldn’t have bothered.

However, learning a few basic phrases is important and isn’t much of a tall order. Phrases likes Hello. How are you. How much is it. Thank you and Goodbye – can make your journey a lot smoother. In addition to that, learn how to count in the local language. Don’t bother with the names of common food because you’re eventually going to recognise them, but numbers help you do a lot – particularly if you’re a backpacker.

All this can usually be mastered within a few days. Progressing from there, to a level where you can get around on a daily basis in the local language (ie. ask around for cheap hotels, make simple conversation about yourself with people you meet, go and bargain in the market) usually requires some effort, and you master that on your own.

So as I said, I don’t believe it’s so ‘Important’ to speak a local language when visiting a new place, but I strongly recommend learning a few local phrases. You can moreover impress locals so easily by saying a few words in their language. I can say please, thank you, hello and goodbye in around 20 different Indian languages, in addition to Thai, Khmer and Dzonkha. In Thai, I can even string a few sentences together.

What If You Still Can’t Speak A Word In The Local Language
happy-people

Go to a hotel: Look for the nearest lodging, preferably a big hotel, which might be most accustomed to dealing with international guests, as this can be your best option to find a person on staff who can speak English.

Find a tourist office: As with hotels, tourist offices are familiar with little English and can interact with unaccustomed visitors. Though finding a tourist office in many countries is a tough task, if you can find one, it’s definitely going to help you a great deal. Most tourist offices also give free maps to around the city.

Look for young people: Reaching out to younger locals always help. If I want directions to a place, or some other question is troubling me, I always go to young people. I’ve found that people in their 20’s tend to be more likely to have studied or remember English. If not, they are more likely to help you out.

Sign it out: When nothing works, hand gestures, sketches and even funny Indian head-wobbling can work to convey your message. They’re most effective when words fail. Though seemingly innocent hand gestures in your own culture could prove offensive elsewhere in the world. So be careful with it!

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Filed under: Travel Tips

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Shortly after my first real nine-to-five job, I left that lifestyle behind, and with it, everything that didn't fit in my backpack. I've learned that this world is too big (and too interesting!) to stay in one place. I believe that with a little courage and inspiration, everyone has the power to follow their dreams. Just as I've followed mine!

15 Comments

  1. I completely agree with you on all these points, when you don’t know the language of the country you visit you must know at least some basic words. But that’s true that you can always use a little English or draw something (well, i’ll prefer to use English as I don’t draw very well haha). Now you also have apps that can help!

    • haha, you just mentioned the funny part of language help with apps. Technology is making it too easy (or perhaps tough!) for human to learn new things.

  2. I agree about learning a few basic phrases. I also try to learn some numbers because it can be helpful in a story or giving taxi directions. But most of the time, the language barrier can be overcome if both people are polite and try their best!

    • Yea learning how to say numbers in local language always help! Totally agree. Especially when you’ve to bargain while buying vegetable. haha

  3. The language of hand signs became my bff about 9 years ago when I started traveling solo. I try to learn a few phrases and I must have learned way too many because I sometimes use the wrong language #leSigh. Speaking mandarin instead of japanese was my latest debacle after a month of learning Japanese. I just can’t get it right. lol, so I stick a lot to gesticulating and hope for the best. Using a device to save information about the destination is the local language is the best I’ve found (like directions/addresses to have locals point you to)…it keeps confusion to a minimum. Also thank God for google translate offline app!!!

  4. Language barrier is often the hardest part of traveling solo. I think your tip of learning a few basic phrases before going anywhere is really helpful, I know that’s what I try to do before going to a new country!

  5. Hahaha! Sounds perfect! On the first day of my college, I learnt how to say ‘I don’t know’ in about 10 different languages! Lolz… Coz, with students from various states, my first line to many was to say ‘I don’t know *insert language*’. Btw, Google translate helped me whenever I traveled to countries where I didn’t the local language!

    • hahah! I think it’s a great idea to get away from the situation while making it funny and not having to answer the questions you’re asked. Btw, don’t give it as an advice to young kids though! haha. kidding!

  6. These are some super useful tips! I always try to learn a couple of phrases, even if you don’t end up communicating much, it gets people more willing to try and help you (even if through gestures)!

  7. Useful information and I do agree with many things you said in this post!! Knowing phrases in local language are really important during a trip! Anyway, as you mentioned before, “Hello and How much is it?” are the most important! Keep travelling and discover the world buddy, thanks for sharing

  8. blair villanueva says

    You’ve shared important points here as a smart traveler!

    I learned that learning the basic phrases of foreign language such as Hello, Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening, Thanks you, How much, Excuse Me, and Please will lead you to your right way 🙂

    And learned to SMILE ALWAYS – the international language that never fails.

  9. Agree! Agree! Agree! Great tips especially learning some basic phrases in the local language will be of a great help to any traveler. Else one can opt for a dictionary or father of everything i.e Google Translation.

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