One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to traveling are language barriers. As I discussed in one of my recent posts, not knowing Spanish lead to massive headaches in Madrid. So how can you overcome language barriers?

Five Phrases You Should Know

Before going to any country, knowing a few simple phrases will help you a lot. Even if you only intend to be in the airport for a few hours, this can make your life a lot easier.

Where is _________” you should definitely learn a vocab word or two such as “bathroom” “gate” and “taxI”

I‘m sorry” Not all cultures are as big on saying sorry, but you’ll probably make at least a few mistakes in a new country so it’s worth it to know.

Hello” Most countries appreciate when someone at least tries to say a word or two in their language, it can start you off on the right foot.

Thank you” Another general term that will make people more inclined to help you/think better about your country.

I don’t understand/I don’t speak” if you are racially ambiguous or just look very friendly (as I apparently do) you’ll probably get a lot of people asking random questions that you don’t understand. Having this phrase on hand can lead to someone finding you someone who does speak your language, or will leave you alone (also great for turning down unwanted advances). Knowing the word for your language is also helpful.

Don’t be Afraid to Mime

A lot can be accomplished with the few words above, but sometimes you’re looking for something specific. Food can easily be mimed, along with a drink. The fact of the matter is, if you travel a lot you will inevitably wind up in a country that has a language that doesn’t have any information available on the internet, or the sounds are simply too complicated for an English speaker to accurately pronounce. No one will care that you’re miming, or drawing, or whatever you need to do – many will join in as it’s kindof fun 😀

Many Words are Cognates

English is the current language of trade, which means many, many English words are present in other languages and vice versa. When in doubt, give English nouns a try. For instance, metro/subway/bus are often very similar across languages, or the word is an alternate to the native word. “Bus-u” is the word for bus in Korean.

Sometimes you do hav to add the language’s accent. The lady at the Incheon Airport in Korea could not understand my “Ice skating” request (the airport had an ice rink at one point). It was not until I said “Ice-u kait-ing,” that she understood. The addition of the “u” is common in many Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea.

Get Google Translate

I‘m not normally a fan of translation apps – they can often be incorrect. However, when all else fails you should bring them out. When I was in France I wound up in an Italian restaurant. I could not understand the waiters Italian accent speaking French, for some reason. We used Google Translate to have a fun conversation. It will even say the words out loud if you need it to. Google doesn’t support all languages, of course, but it’s selection covers many popular countries/languages.

Watch a TV Show Episode or Two

This is a bit more of a time commitment, but can be very helpful. One of the biggest things I have an issue with are foreign sounds. My brain will often be entirely caught up in the new sounds and miss the words I might have otherwise understood. Even 20 minutes listening to something in the language can put you more at ease. It’s worth it for avoiding potential issues.

I hope this can help you overcome your language barriers! I’ll have a post up soon about which languages/writing systems are the most useful to learn if you plan to travel a lot.


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