Travel, Travel Tips

The Year of Traveling Fearlessly: Going Where You Don’t Speak the Language

April 29, 2016

The Year of Traveling Fearlessly

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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!

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  • Reply M. L. Kappa April 29, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Good tips Be prepared, like a Scout. In Hong Kong, the hotel gives you a card to show taxi drivers with the name of your hotel in Chinese. They pronounce names in a totally different way so without the card it would be difficult to get home!

    • Reply Tiffany April 29, 2016 at 6:29 pm

      Thank you. Good to know about Hong Kong! Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply Carla S April 29, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Fab tips! I am going to France soon so this post has come at the perfect time for me!
    I totally forgot that google maps requires data which by the time I go may or may not be available to me!

    • Reply Tiffany April 30, 2016 at 7:44 am

      Thank you Carla! I am glad you found it helpful. Hotel wifi is handy for that. Where in France are you going?

  • Reply Kathy @ SMART Living May 2, 2016 at 5:48 am

    I love to travel and always make sure that I stay in a hotel or vacation rental that offers wifi so that I can research things. I also get on trip and plan out my trip in advance. I make a list of highly recommend restaurants and end up eating at the best places. I think that the more we take the time to prepare for our trips, the more comfortable we will be. Thanks for your tips.

    • Reply Tiffany May 2, 2016 at 9:33 am

      Thanks for sharing your tips. Preparation is always a good idea!

  • Reply vinneve May 3, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    In France, I used a hand signals the old language haha! and in Switzerland Italy, I still speak English and somehow they understood. The most important for me are remembering the landmark and how to get to your hotel.

    • Reply Tiffany May 3, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      Hand signals are always helpful! If I think I won’t find my hotel, I take a photo of it and the street sign. Thanks for your tips!!!

  • Reply Michael Del Rosario May 4, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Thanks for the tips! Smiling is pretty universal, so that’s my usual go to move when I’m in a foreign land. Thanks for the tips and I’ll definitely use them when I travel this summer!

    • Reply Tiffany May 4, 2016 at 6:32 pm

      You’re welcome. Great tip! Where are you headed this summer?

  • Reply Mad Magellan May 4, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    Local maps are usually the best. Try to avoid buying the map when outside the country, unless the country you are going has a habit of clamping down on detailed maps. If you do take a more detailed map than is available in-country, and that country is experiencing some ‘issues’, then perhaps keep the map out of sight. Different details mean different things in different countries, so a symbol indicating a bridge can get you a room with bars on the windows in some places.

    However, Lonely Planet maps are generally regarded as amongst the best by seasoned travellers, such as foreign correspondents, NGOs etc. Hit the local library and borrow one. I know people who buy the LP books, carefully cut out the maps, and use the rest of the book as a doorstop.

    Most hotels provide free maps, but they can vary from being excellent and highly detailed, to woefully out of date. Scales can be all over the place meaning that what looks like a five minute walk is closer to five miles. A free map from a big name hotel is no guarantee of value. Sometimes hostels provide better maps. Tip: if the map is loaded with advertising, then it’s probably a safe bet that is leaves out more than it includes. Business is business.

    Street sweepers are (imho) often the best judges of the accuracy of maps. It’s their beat, after all.

    • Reply Tiffany May 4, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      My only issue with printed maps is that the street names change and maps aren’t updated as often. I also think they tag you as a tourist, but they are often more accurate. I would just not pull it out on the street. Great tips!!

      • Reply Mad Magellan May 5, 2016 at 12:12 pm

        There is always the issue of looking like a tourist, and the risks therein. All valid, and something I wanted to touch on. The upside to paper maps is that you can scribble on them (ideally with a pencil), which is trickier with the electronic versions. No need to mention the constraints of phone batteries when you travel. Suggest you do an article on power banks next.

        Most developed cities and towns have tourist maps at central locations, and even public transport stops, and they are usually kept up to date. They vary in quality and detail too, and can also make you look like a tourist, but are worth taking a photo of with your phone. However, watch out for overzealous/bored/dodgy station guards, as they can use that as an opportunity to make life ‘interesting’ for you.

        The same places attract criminals looking for witless tourists, something I have seen everywhere from Paris France to Paris Texas.

        • Reply Tiffany May 5, 2016 at 2:12 pm

          Power banks are a must while traveling! I just like the map saying turn left. Plus I find street signs hard to find in some European cities. Maybe I am just too short! Thanks!

  • Reply Kylee May 12, 2016 at 3:39 am

    This is great information! I’m planning a trip to Italy next summer, and it’ll not only be my first trip to a country where English isn’t the native language, but also my first solo trip. I’m already getting apprehensive about the language barrier because I don’t pick up languages quickly or easily, but this has helped tremendously!

    • Reply Tiffany May 12, 2016 at 7:10 am

      I am so glad it helped. You are going to love Italy. Where in Italy are you going? I am going again at the end of the month.

  • Reply sparkyjen May 17, 2016 at 12:45 am

    I tend to use body language. It seems to be easy to translate in many of the countries I’ve been to. I also have used a guide. They have no problems at all, and show me all the native haunts. I love that. I will carry and or download whatever I need in a pinch. I’m a very friendly person, so have little trouble asking questions to people who speak many languages.

    Funny story in Paris. A lady was begging on the promenade. She asked me for money in one of what I suspect were her many languages. I said I didn’t speak the language she was speaking, so just like that she changed to one I did understand. Sadly for her, I didn’t give her any money. She was talented enough to be doing other things. My suggestion: Become a professional translator!

    • Reply Tiffany May 17, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Body language is also great! Sounds like you have traveled a lot. Thanks for your tips! Sounds like you have a great idea for her!

  • Reply kimberly October 20, 2018 at 2:47 am


    Nice article, Thanks for sharing this information with us. I am planning a solo trip and I was thinking that I can’t communicate with their native language. I hope you blog help me a lot.
    Keep sharing more with us.

    Take care

    • Reply Tiffany October 20, 2018 at 5:46 am

      Thank you! You will do great.

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