Brussels was my first real international trip to a country where I didn’t know a lick of the language or languages. I only really know how to say hello and thank you in French, knew no Dutch and definitely do not know any Flemish. I was terrified to speak to anyone. I am not really sure why. The first day, I might have spoken 50 words! Later in the trip, I met some English women that were attending the same conference as me, and it was so nice to have a conversation with someone. My next trip was to Italy and by the end of the trip, I was trying out more and more Italian. Part of the reason was that I was better prepared in Italy than in Brussels, so I am going to share my tips on successfully navigating another country in a foreign language with you.
Learn Key Phrases – Say hello, thank you and you’re welcome! A few more like please and where is, will get you far with the locals and will help you feel more comfortable practicing the language. Also, learn “I do not speak …” in the language that way you can at least respond when the cop starts speaking to you on the street in Paris! (I was so sad I couldn’t because he was cute!)
Download a Translation App – Not only will you be able to decipher signs and menus, but it could help in a bind if you need to ask someone a question in an emergency, like where is the bathroom?! Here is an article with 5 translation app suggestions. Some require you to have a data connection, so be prepared.
Carry a Phrasebook – This will be handy if you don’t have a data connection or just prefer a book. I also used mine in Italy to decipher menus, and it gave me a way to practice with locals without having my phone out. The phrase book I took to Italy was divided into sections like basics, social and food. It was also small making it easy to carry around.
Download Maps to Your Phone – This way you have a map and won’t have to ask for directions. I have learned that if you ask for directions in the local language, you may get directions in the local language, which doesn’t always help. Just keep in mind that Google Maps requires a data connection to get the map going at first, as I discovered in Slovenia leaving the airport recently!
Ask Your Hotel – Someone at your hotel might speak your native language, especially if it is a large chain. This way they can write down what you need in the local language with an explanation that you don’t speak the language.
Learn Public Transportation Stops in the Language – This is helpful in countries that do not use a Roman alphabet like Japan or China. You could have photos of it taken on your phone for reference as well. Ask your hotel what the station name sounds like as well so you can listen for it on the announcements.
Just Try – Locals usually appreciate the effort and will help you. No one should expect you to speak perfect Italian, French, Arabic or any other language just because you are there on vacation! But giving it a try will add to your travel experience. I met some Italians in Slovenia, and they were so excited with the little Italian I have been practicing for my month in Italy.
How do you communicate in foreign countries? Share with us your tips in the comments!