Many years ago, most people would take their vacation in their home country. Often the reason for this was that international travel incited the dreaded fear of ‘the language’. Today though, travellers are far more adventurous and positively revel in going to a country where the natives speak a different language.

If it’s your first time though, you might be a little apprehensive but there’s really no need to be.

Life is so much easier these days. I remember the old days when people would study phrasebooks (that sometimes got them into enormous trouble!) but today. all you need is a good translation app on your phone. Practice using it a few times before you go away and speaking with foreigners will be a breeze.

We used to be told that, at the very least, we should learn to say ‘hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘do you speak English?’ plus a few additional phrases and your translation app will help you to learn those. (My essential phrase is ‘a glass of red wine, please’.)

These days, you’ll find that without being aware of it, you are familiar with many foreign words and phrases, especially if you’re heading to Western Europe – after all ‘pizza’ in Italy is ‘pizza’! However, it’s never safe to assume that people will speak English in the country you’re visiting.

Have you ever noticed that young kids can always find a playmate in other countries despite language difficulties? To some extent, that is because they are less inhibited than we adults – they are quite happy to mime, to use exaggerated facial expressions and to draw what they are trying to communicate. We can do the same.

But the problem is with having a little knowledge of a language is something I’ve seen many times:

English speaking person: Où est l’aéroport?
French person: Ah oui. Tournez à gauche au carrefour que vous voyez à l’avance. Un kilomètre et demi et vous verrez les panneaux à droite. Suivez les indications jusqu’à ce que vous voyiez l’aéroport sur votre droite.

Then he’s gone. Did you catch what he said? I didn’t. Like me, you can probably more or less translate it when it’s written down but even though the French person had tried to be helpful, I’d be none the wiser. Stick with the app.

Here are some tips for communicating when you don’t understand the language:

  • Think about the things you might need and the questions you might need answering before you set off on your travels. It might sound crazy but if you have a photograph on your phone of a toilet with a question mark, this could save you a little relief on occasion. Use this for other places too. It’s especially effective if you’re travelling through several countries which have different languages
  • Speaking of toilet, be sure to use the most widely known English-English words rather than American English. For example ‘toilet’ and not ‘restroom’ or ‘bathroom’. Most foreigners who understand English, especially in Europe have been taught English, not American
  • Take a photograph of your hotel and it’s street sign before you venture out in case you need directions to get back there
  • Bear in mind that in some countries, many people understand English but are reluctant to speak it. But they might understand more than you realise
  • Sometimes you may need someone who speaks English to help you. If you really need assistance from someone who speaks your language, try large hotels, important restaurants, or even hospitals or banks. Hostels are another good idea as there may be guests staying there who are international students or who have travelled enough to know English well. You’re likely to find English, Canadian, American, Australian travellers there too
  • If it’s your first time travelling to a country with another language you will be reassured if you check that there is an English speaker at your accommodation
  • If you are speaking to someone with just a basic knowledge of English, be careful not to use slang words that they might not understand

You’ll find that you have few if any problems when you’re travelling in non-English speaking countries. After all, it’s part of the fun of travel!






JJ is originally from the UK and has lived in South Florida since 1994. She is the founder and editor of JAQUO Magazine. You can connect with her using the social media icons below.

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