Best ways to travel without knowing the local language

Feb 29, 2020

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Traveling in a foreign country can be daunting to begin with, but even more so if you don’t speak the local language. It can be stressful to consider getting into a precarious situation — or any situation at all — in a country where you can’t communicate.

Getting lost, not being able to find a toilet or explain food allergies to wait staff can seem insurmountable in a foreign country where you don’t speak or understand the language. Even the thought of sounding silly by mispronouncing words in a different language is enough to stop people from traveling abroad.

Overlooking the Old Town Square in Prague. (Photo by Alexander Spatari / Getty Images)
Overlooking the Old Town Square in Prague. (Photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images)

But a possible miscommunication or the thought of discomfort shouldn’t stop you from exploring the world. The below tips will ensure you can travel safely and easily to different countries around the world, even if you aren’t multilingual.

Use a translation app

Luckily, technology has caught up with monolinguists and there are many excellent translation apps you can use while traveling. While you’ll find a whole slew of translation app options to choose from, TPG has a few select favorites.

  • iTranslate: One of the highest-rated translation apps out there, iTranslate even has a special version for Apple Watch so you can translate directly on your wrist. Choose from a basic version (free), offering things like a phrase book with pre-defined, useful phrases and translations in more than 100 languages. The Pro version ($6), features offline translation, website translation (including a Safari extension), camera translation, voice-to-voice conversations and verb conjugations.
  • Google Translate: We know, you’ve heard of it. But are you aware of all the features you could be using, but probably aren’t? This app offers typing translation in 103 languages — and 59 of them are available offline. Handwriting translation (drawing or writing characters) is available in 95 languages, instant camera translation in 90 languages and two-way instant speech translation in 43 languages.
A group of friends travelling together are exploring the local tourist attractions and architecture, they stop for a moment to look over recent photos on their phones. Photo by Hinterhaus Productions/Getty
Travellers using apps. (Photo by Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images)

Besides the aforementioned apps, there are others that specialize in things like Asian languages (Papago), translating slang and colloquial terms (TripLingo) and having two-way voice conversations on the fly (Speak & Translate).

Have offline versions of translation and map apps

Before traveling, plan to download some of your most useful apps, such as Google Maps (especially the offline map of your destination) and any translation apps (for example, Waygo only translates between English and a few select languages, but it’s available entirely offline), or even ahead of time. This will ensure that if you get lost or need a translation but are without mobile coverage, you have access to useful digital tools that can help without having to ask someone (in a language you don’t speak, of course) or where to find Wi-Fi and connect.

Further reading: 9 best translation apps for travelers

(Screenshot courtesy of Google Play)
Download apps ahead of time like Google Maps — including offline versions. (Screenshot courtesy of Google Play)

Plan logistics ahead

Being a spur-of-the-moment backpacker offers the ultimate freedom, but you may want to save this type of happy-go-lucky holiday for a trip to Australia where the general population speaks English. Wandering around in an unfamiliar country late at night searching for a hostel, airport transfer or even a bar or restaurant isn’t ideal if you can’t speak the local language — and not to mention it could be unsafe in some foreign destinations.

Having your accommodation organised ahead makes things easier.(Photo by Andrea Rotondo/The Points Guy)
Having your accommodation organized ahead makes things easier. (Photo by Andrea Rotondo/The Points Guy)

Organizing important logistical details, like a hotel, airport transfers and restaurant reservations before you travel is key. At a minimum, have the first few nights of accommodation safely secured and depending on your destination, your first airport transfer. Facing unscrupulous taxi drivers when you don’t speak the language and are dealing with jet lag can be stressful — and open you up to being cheated or scammed.

Get a business card for your hotel

Many years ago during a trip to Thailand, I hopped in one of Bangkok’s pink taxis and told the driver the name of my hotel in English. He didn’t understand. This occurred before the days of smartphones or ride-hailing services, and I had no way to explain where I was going in Thai. I ended up having to get out of the taxi and find the nearest local BTS Skytrain station. Needless to say, it took me quite a while to get back to my hotel.

Further reading: How to avoid the most common travel scams in Europe

If you do take a taxi or tuk tuk, having a business card for your hotel makes things easier. (Photo by Sven Scheuermeier via Unsplash)
If you do take a taxi or tuk-tuk, having a business card for your hotel makes things easier. (Photo by Sven Scheuermeier/Unsplash)

If this had happened now, I could have simply put the hotel name into a translation app, or Googled the hotel to find out how to say the name in Thai.

But, an easier option is to take a business card for the hotel, which usually has the name and address in the local language as well as English. I usually snap a photo of the card on my phone, but also carry it with me in case my phone runs out of battery so I can show taxi drivers if necessary.

If you’d prefer to stay entirely digital, apps for some online travel agencies like also show the name of the hotel in both the local language and English — and you can download your reservations to appear offline too.

Utilize ride-hailing services

One of the most perilous language moments you can have in a foreign country may just be with a taxi driver (see above) — and not to mention that being unfamiliar with a language and destination can open you up to scams and cheating. The best way to avoid having to explain where you’re going to a taxi driver is to use a ride-hailing app instead. This way, you can enter your destination directly in the app, know ahead of time how much your trip will cost and have minimal communication with the driver.

Consider using a ride-hailing app to get around. (Photo courtesy Uber)
Consider using a ride-hailing app to get around. (Photo courtesy of Uber)

Try to learn the language ahead of time

This one is tougher, but you can always try to learn some keywords or phrases at home before traveling. Even if it doesn’t provide you with as much travel ease as you hope, it’s still nice to participate in the local culture as much as possible.

And you may surprise yourself. Attempting to learn a few keywords in Spanish before a trip to Mexico years back inspired a fascination with the Spanish language that led to me seek out language classes and later move to Spain permanently, eventually becoming fluent. You never know what a bit of foreign vocabulary might lead to.

While learning a few select words won’t inspire everyone to move abroad, it will still help you during your travels. Some of the most useful words/phrases to know in a foreign language are things like:

  • Good morning
  • Hello
  • How are you? I’m fine.
  • Thank you
  • You’re welcome
  • Where is the loo?
  • Left
  • Right
  • How much is it?
  • Numbers from 1 to10
  • Beer/wine/food/water
  • Can you help me?
  • Do you speak English?
  • I want
  • Can I have
Speaking a few words of the local language can help you make friends. When all else fails, try beer. Photo by Nick DuPont/TPG.
Speaking a few words of the local language can help you make friends. When all else fails, try beer. (Photo by Nick DuPont/The Points Guy)

These phrases and more can be learned ahead of time at home with apps such as Duolingo, which offers short lessons in speaking over 30 different languages including obvious contenders such as Spanish, French, Italian and Russian as well as more obscure ones like Hungarian, Navajo and Welsh.

Speak slowly and clearly, but don’t shout

When you’re used to everyone around you speaking English, you don’t always realize how fast you speak, or how colloquial. It’s possible that the person you’re speaking to in another country actually does speak a bit of English but won’t understand when you quickly spout off slang.

So, make sure when speaking English to locals that you speak slowly, clearly and carefully, using easy words and phrases. For example, instead of spilling out, “Excuse me, can you please tell me the easiest and quickest way to get to the market?” instead slowly say, “Hi. Where is the market?”

(Photo by Klaus Vedflet/Getty Images)
(Photo by Klaus Vedflet/Getty Images)

And remember, shouting doesn’t help. You can repeat your statement slowly and with a smile but don’t raise your voice. No one enjoys getting shouted at, even if you have the best of intentions.

Consider a guide

If it’s in your budget, consider hiring a guide. Not only will this likely enrich your experience from a cultural and tourism standpoint, but it will make logistics like finding attractions and navigating a new destination much easier. Instead of having to barter at the market, search for a bathroom or ask for a bottle of water in a new language, a guide can help you with those types of interactions.

(Photo by Walter Bibikow/Getty Images)
(Photo by Walter Bibikow/Getty Images)

Just try

The biggest hindrance you may encounter in a foreign country is yourself. You may feel silly attempting to speak a foreign language, stuttering over unfamiliar sounds, words and pronunciations. After living in Spain for 12 years, I’ve had numerous locals stare at me, laugh at me and even had really embarrassing moments where I’ve accidentally said something wildly inappropriate but didn’t realize what it really meant. And don’t even get me started on the language faux pas I’ve made in France.

Further reading: 20 best travel apps to download in 2020

Nicky Kelving of TPG U.K. making friends with locals in Senegal.
(Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

You simply have to let go of any shame, panic or fear you feel and try your best. For every local that may giggle at you, seem confused or not understand you, there will be another that will smile, help you and be pleased you’ve made the effort.

And, pay it forward when in your home country. If someone is attempting to speak English to you, be kind, friendly and helpful toward them. Speaking a second language is harder than it looks.

Those with food allergies or intolerance can travel too

Traveling with food allergies or intolerance can be stressful — because a mistake could actually be seriously detrimental to your health, causing illness or even death in severe cases. According to Allie Bahn of Miss Allergic Reactor, a blog for those traveling with food allergies, the most important thing is to source a chef card in the local language before traveling. Chef cards are small cards you carry with you to denote in the local language (and often with photos or pictures) the things you are unable to consume.

Bahn explained to TPG that “handing a translated chef card to the manager at a restaurant in a non-English speaking country is essential for anyone with severe food allergies or dietary restrictions that impact their health.”

Photo by Allie Bahn of Miss Allergic Reactor.
(Photo by Allie Bahn of Miss Allergic Reactor)

You can make your own cards or order them online — just make sure to do so before you travel. Plan to show your card when dining out, flying, at hotels or anywhere else you may be eating. For more information on how to fly with food allergies, click here.

Bottom line

(Photo by AleksandarNakic/Getty Images)
Follow these tips for the perfect holiday in a foreign country. (Photo by AleksandarNakic/Getty Images)

Don’t be scared or nervous to travel to countries where you don’t speak the language. By following the above tips on the best ways to travel even if you aren’t multilingual (yet), you can have a safe and fun holiday — and maybe even learn a few words of the local language while doing so.

Featured photo by Michael Duva/Getty Images 

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