Last Updated on January 10, 2020 by Chef Mireille
5 Travel Tips…when you don’t speak the language – Never let language be a deterrent from travel and experiencing another culture!
There are so many more ways to communicate beyond language. A smile – sharing a laugh – tears. We can all share moments and feelings, without words. Why does the music of Andrea Bocelli bring so many people to tears, even when they don’t speak Italian.
I’m a big Bollywood fan and anytime I hear the song Suno Jane Wale from the film LOC Kargil, tears come into my eyes – but I can’t tell you what the words mean unless I am watching the movie with subtitles on!
Not speaking a language should never be a reason not to travel. We all share the language of humanity and of the human condition. However, there are a few tips that will make your travels easier when traveling to a country where English is not spoken or where you do not speak the local language.
Leave your ego at home. I was once on a trip where I encountered an older American couple who did not speak a word of Spanish and we were in South America. At a restaurant, the waiter was trying by using gestures etc. but the Americans were not reciprocating as they were not looking at him. They were looking down at the menu’s and asking him questions in English. They had the attitude that he should know English. Finally, I helped them out and then they said “Thank you. Some of the people here are so ignorant.” – That was the end of my helping. They do not need to know English. It is not their language. Do not expect everyone to speak English, especially if you travel into more rural areas.
People will be willing to try so much harder to communicate with you if you meet them half way. Before you leave, learn a few pleasantries in the language. I always learn how to say a few things like Hello, Thank you, Please, Good Bye in the local language. The locals are usually so appreciative of you making the effort that they go above and beyond for you. At street food vendors, if I say thank you in the local language, I always get a few extra goodies packed into whatever I am purchasing.
Learn how to use the unofficial sign language. Gesture, point, make train noises, mime, show them pictures if you have a pamphlet etc. of where you want to go – basically anything goes if it helps to communicate with them.
Stay connected. Be sure to purchase international data on your mobile phone or a local mobile phone so you can have access to a translator app on your phone. There are some like Google Translate where you just type in the word in one language and it will translate for you in another. There are others like Speak & Translate that will translate from audio. I haven’t tested them all so I cannot vouch for one over the other, but experiment until you find the one that works best for you.
Bring a notepad. Counting is the same in any language, so walk with a little notepad. So when asking for prices etc. you can simple have the vendor write it down for you. The notepad is a great way or bartering back and forth also. It worked great for me in Thailand.
The notepad is also good for writing down addresses and especially the address of your hotel, when you want to return.
Be respectful. In some instances, even if they know English, if the locals feel disrespected, they will not try to help you. Read a little bit about the culture before you go. Sometimes, customs that are accepted in one are rude in another. For example, in some countries the thumbs up gesture is seen as rude and the equivalent of giving them the middle finger.