Matt Forney
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language barriers

Five Tips for Dealing with Language Barriers While Traveling

NOTE: This is a sponsored guest post by Speaking Abroad. If you’re interested in advertising on my site, click here.

If you’re traveling abroad, you need to read this.

1. Knowing ten words puts you in the top ten percent.

Too many people (I’m looking at you, British stag parties) simply go into another country and go around yelling English at people.

If you’re doing a trip that is pure “tourism” (i.e. not immersing yourself into the culture), that’s one thing. But if you are actually going to go and live in a country for a few weeks to a month, learning just a handful of words and phrases will put you so far ahead of the rest of the crowd.

It will help you meet local girls for dating, it will open doors to to make male friends at the gym (gyms, nightclubs, etc.), and everyone working in restaurants, stores and the like will appreciate the effort.

It shows a genuine interest and appreciation for the local language and culture. This is something that is sorely lacking in the majority of Western people who travel, hence the reason why so many of them have such a poor reputation overseas.

language barriers

2. Ask about English the proper way.

Note: Every country is going to be drastically different in this approach.

Contrary to the last point, people do not expect you to speak their language fluently. They are not going to hold it against you. However, there is a proper way to ask if they speak English.

Whether you should ask at all also varies country to country.

For example, when Matt was in Sweden for his speech, he probably realized that just about everybody there speaks English. Some people would likely be offended if he asked if they spoke English.

But in comparison, when he was recently in Ukraine (and as you go further east to countries like Moldova), far fewer people speak English. So there, it’s appropriate to ask.

There is a right and wrong way to do so.

For example, if you’re in a McDonald’s ordering (don’t eat McDonald’s while abroad, but you get my point), it’s bad to just walk up and start ordering in English. You are putting that person on the spot, forcing them to perform in a language they are probably not comfortable in. And you’re doing it in a way that is in the public spotlight; nobody likes that sprung on them.

It is far more appropriate to say in a very moderate tone, “Do you speak English?” More than likely, they will respond back by saying, “a little,” or “so-so.”

This is your cue to just order. Most people can at least understand enough English that it won’t be a problem to take your order. Just don’t ask them to communicate too much back, and you’ll be just fine.

language barriers

3. Understand dialects.

Many people in foreign countries are extremely proud of their country and language. “Language pride” just isn’t something that exists in the United States or the U.K. For us, it’s just English.

That’s not the case abroad.

For example, to use the Ukraine example again, many people in the western part of the country hate Russia and the Russian language itself. While I’d never advise a Westerner to learn Ukrainian over Russian, Ukrainians in that region won’t give a damn.

In that case, it’s best to at least be aware of that problem and act accordingly. If you start speaking Russian and someone wrinkles their nose in disgust, switch to English.

Another example of this is Spain. In some regions of the country, a different dialect of Spanish is actually spoken. While the Spanish probably won’t be as offended as Ukrainians in this case, it’s still good to at least be aware and recognize the separate dialects.

4. Download offline translators.

I don’t really see a need for any apps other than Google Translate. It works just fine for the majority of languages, and has some nifty features.

Make sure you always download the offline translation pack (they’re usually a couple hundred megabytes) in the app itself. This allows you to use it even if you don’t have an Internet connection, though foreign SIM cards are so cheap, it’s usually worth it.

Either way, you’ll be covered.

As a bonus tip, you can do the same thing with Google Maps areas. This will allow you to navigate the city (and some parts of public transit) without having either cell service or a reliable WiFi connection.

language barriers

5. Hit up language exchanges.

If you’re planning on spending significant time in a place, make sure to hit up the language exchange programs. These usually occur on a weekly basis, and are truly just groups of people who get together to practice various languages.

If you are a native English speaker, you’ll be in hot demand.

In most cases, if you are a native speaker and choose to go and practice English, the host is going to buy you a couple beers. All the people who want to practice English will flock to you, making it very easy to get phone numbers from girls. It’s easy to make friends who will want to hang out and can give you a hand with the local language if you’re in a pinch.

I’ve met many great people this way, and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Closing Thoughts

Too many people get stuck on the notion that traveling is scary. That if they don’t speak the language, it’s going to be a struggle. The truth is that in many places of the world, English is widely spoken.

And even if it’s not, you can survive with the tips I’ve mentioned above.

Don’t let language barriers stop you from seeing the world.

Read Next: Three Easy Ways to Learn Another Language

  • Right now I work as a Spanish support for Globalsign (the CA) – and being in this road for a while I’ve worked with many expats who work in my country. I tell you – it really feela great when this girl replied to me (she’s Belgian) “Ayos! (Great!) it really sparks conversations and limmits natural racial inhibitions