Travel Tuesday: Tips for Traveling In Another Language

Black and white clipart, world continents

Fact: There are 7 continents, 190+ countries, and over 6,000 languages spoken on this planet Earth.

Fact: I fluently speak 1 of those 6,000+ languages – English (mostly American English to be precise). I speak a bastardized version of 7 or 8 languages (including other versions of English).

Fact: Traveling as a “monoglot” often leads to some very interesting…”conversations”.

Happy Tuesday everyone! Thanks to a holiday on Monday and the usual (every other) Friday off, I have a 3-day week and I’m thrilled! As it’s the last Tuesday of the month, we have a theme this week – languages. As noted above, I only really speak English with fluency, so today I thought I’d share some of my tips for traveling to those places in the world that don’t speak your native language.

greetings in different languages

1. Learn a few key phrases before you go. I promise this can save you many headaches as you travel along. At a minimum I usually try to learn the common greeting (hello!, etc.), yes, no, please, thank you, and sorry/excuse me. There are phone apps that will give you the correct pronunciation or you can even find some examples on Youtube. Ah technology, you leave no room for excuses. (smile) Knowing these words – and using them no matter how bad the pronunciation – lets the locals know that you respect them and you are trying. Combined with a sheepish look/smile and a great deal of patience, these phrases can also take you places you wanted to go and others you never knew existed.

2. Give yourself time to get acclimated. Even when conversing with other English speakers, I may not always catch the dialect/accent immediately. I’ve generally found that I have a 1-3 second processing delay while my brain computes what it heard into my American English. It’s frustrating at times, but getting frustrated is the number one way to get yourself into trouble/ruin an experience. When someone speaks to you, give yourself a moment to process. Chances are, even if it’s a language you never even knew existed, you can figure out the general meaning by putting together context, voice inflection, etc. This isn’t always 100% foolproof, but it’s certainly better than walking away complaining about how not everyone in the world speaks your language.

how to speak frog in different languages

3. Leave the dictionary at home – bring pen and paper instead. I’m the first to admit that I have a section of foreign language dictionaries on my travel book shelf. Please note that I am making a distinction here between guide book, phrase book, and actual translation dictionaries. The first two are helpful, the third is just outdated. I’m sure the dictionary may come in handy once in a while, but on the whole I’ve found that a blank piece of paper and a (not-on-purpose) comical stick figure drawing can be just as, if not more, effective than standing around flipping through pages. Not to mention that those dictionaries use the “proper” form of the language, which may not always translate the way you want it to depending on who you’re trying to converse with. I usually have the person write down the word I’m looking for with the picture for posterity – once I have the association, it tends to stick better!

4. Don’t be afraid to look silly. When traveling with my friend, we had the perfect tag-team system going – I could usually make out what the local was saying so I translated the sentiment to her. She then communicated our response back to the local (my dear “Southern Belle” accent just adds to the confusion). By playing on each of our strengths, we were able to get around many places where there wasn’t an English speaker in hollering-distance. I’ll grant you there was a lot of miming (and drawing), but it worked out – and usually seemed endearing to the poor local that had to deal with us. The best mannerism I picked up from my friend was eye contact and a smile – not a stare and a clown face, but a very brief acknowledgment of our gratitude for the other person’s willingness to help us out. Besides making us experts at charades and pictionary, it also gave us many fun stories to share (smile).

How do you navigate language barriers??

Come join Bonnie, Kaelene, Sammy, and Van for some language fun!

Travel Tuesday

14 thoughts on “Travel Tuesday: Tips for Traveling In Another Language

  1. Pingback: Language Shouldn’t Be A Barrier | PonderTheIrrelevant

  2. Love the language frogs! It’s so true, a part of my roots come from Indonesia. And they name everything after its sound.
    I’m Dutch, unfortunately nobody abroad speaks Dutch. I can speak English pretty well, I’m trying to get better. I would love to learn Spanish.


  3. Because my accent sounds SO American, I usually just go for it in German until the other person feels bad for me and switches to English without me having to ask! I’ve been here three years and it’s stillllll hard for me to not worry about looking/sounding silly but I’m slowly getting over it.


  4. Pingback: Mykonos | Unlocking Kiki

  5. As a foreign language teacher, this is my only advice on the topic: you only learn to speak a language by speaking. And you can’t really wait till you “know everything”, or speak “perfect” whatever… because you will never be perfect or know everything, and if you cannot accept that, you’ll never say a word.


  6. Yeah, love the last one. Totally agree! I was in a restaurant in France once, with a friend who speaks French and she told me to ask for the bill – I felt like a complete idiot because I didn’t think I was pronouncing it correctly. Turned out fine and we got that bill 😉


  7. Not being afraid to look silly is so important when learning a new language. Something I still struggle with since I don’t want to look silly and tend to just not say something when I should just use it as good practice! Learning languages is one fun challenge.


    • I think a lot of the silliness depends on the people – for instance, I felt much more comfy looking silly speaking French in the smaller areas of France vs. Paris (a story in itself)! I admire your courage in getting out there and learning Icelandic! I’ve always thought that would be a particular challenge, but what a fun thing to learn 🙂


  8. Aw I love this post! You are giving very true advices! I’ve never actually been to a country where I didn’t understand the language at least a little bit and it sort of scares me to be honest! You’re brave for doing so!
    I must say I’m very very guilty of bringing a dictionary with me when I’m abroad and like you said it’s probably better to leave it at home and just listen to people and get words from them.
    Thanks for sharing!


    • Thank you for saying that! My dad (and my family in general) just think I’m crazy 🙂
      I totally understand about the dictionary thing – I used to do the same thing (hence my lovely collection) until I started traveling just with a backpack. Then I didn’t have much choice and found I didn’t need one! It was a pretty freeing realization overall, but I certainly don’t judge anyone else for having one. It’s all about feeling comfortable in a new situation 🙂


  9. How can a frog sound different in different languages? To me, a frog always says quak! There must be some very strange frogs running around in England if they say ribbit 😀 It’s really funny, I certainly didn’t know that!
    When it comes to greeting people in the local language I however encountered some difficulties. At least in Scandinavia every time I said Hej they assumed I spoke Swedish/Norwegian fluently and I then had to apologize and ask them to speak English instead. Really confusing and I’m glad I’m now nearly fluent in Swedish 😉 though I’m also glad to never have been in a situation where I had to use pen and paper and I’m awfully bad in sign language. I once met a Finn who didn’t speak English and needless to say, I don’t speak Finnish, and we could only communicate through smiles and pointing at things. So awkward but then again very interesting 😀
    Thanks for joining the prompt!


    • Isn’t it strange? Growing up in the States, it was always ribbit – I didn’t realize that it was different until I saw that diagram 🙂 I’ve encountered the same issue with knowing the greetings, but have found that the confused look that immediately appears on my face when they start speaking beyond that gives me away pretty quickly! You’re totally right – awkward but interesting 🙂 It’s a part of what makes travel so intriguing!


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