Travel Tips

How I Deal With Language Barrier While Travelling

I remember when I was leaving for my first solo trip I was doubtful more than ever. Would it be safe? Interesting? How will 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 Kerala. In his words “Is language a barrier to travelling? I was planning to travel to 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 travelling to places that speak a different language. I remember I didn’t travel to Bhutan — my first ever solo destination — until I mastered a few phrases in Dzongkha. But as I travelled a little more, I realised that language makes very little difference to our journey.

As long as you learn a few phrases in the local language of the place you’re travelling to, you are going to be absolutely fine!

Naga people

Dealing With Language Barrier Tip 1: Learn A Few Phrases

Not only I am a solo traveller, but I am also someone who loves exploring new and offbeat places; places where the language is often totally alien to me. So learning a new language, right from scratch, is not a viable option.

However, learning a few basic phrases is indeed possible!

Phrases like 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 ‘Important’ to speak a local language fluently, but I strongly recommend learning a few 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 German, French, Thai, Khmer and Dzongkha, among others.

Dealing With Language Barrier Tip 2: Be Street Smart

Go to a hotel: Look for the nearest lodging, preferably a big hotel, which might be most accustomed to dealing with international guests, and thus know a bit of English.

Find a tourist office: As with hotels, tourist offices are familiar with English to be able to interact with tourists. 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 around the city.

Look for young people: Reaching out to younger locals always help. I’ve found that people in their 20’s tend to be more likely to know English.

Sign it out: When nothing works, hand gestures, head-wobbling can work to convey your message. They’re most effective when words fail. Though hand gestures common in your country may not make much sense to someone living in a different continent, but there’s no harm in trying!

Also Read: How To Overcome Loneliness: Tips For Introvert Solo Travellers

About

I am Dev, and I've been travelling full-time since 2016. I was a journalism student & started my corporate career as a documentary film-maker in England, before moving to India & becoming a full-time nomad. 25+countries. 50+ Brand Partnerships. And the adventure continues...

  1. Miriam Ernst

    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. Stella the Travelerette

    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. travelwithtarah

    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. Bhushavali

    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. davide utravelshare

    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

    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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