6 tips for traveling to non-english speaking countries

7 Tips for Traveling to Non-English Speaking Countries

Being in a country whose language you do not speak can be difficult, and sometimes scary. I personally speak 5 languages, and can move around easily in many countries around the world. So I am very fortunate, as it allows me to connect with the locals and get a deeper understanding of the local culture. But there are of course places I have traveled to and wish to travel to in the future, of which I do not speak the language. So in this post I share with you my tips for traveling to non-English speaking countries. Many major cities around the world, most of those involved in the tourism industry speak English.  But do not let fear of not speaking the local language keep you from traveling and if you wish to truly make the most of your experience while on vacation, or discover some off-the-beaten-path locations, stray from the touristy English friendly areas, here I have listed 6 tips for traveling to non-English speaking countries on how to overcome those fears.

The Office of Travel and Tourism estimated that in 2013 more than 29 million Americans traveled overseas, primarily to countries where English was not the first language. Although many travelers can get by with English alone, a big part of cultural immersion is being able to understand and communicate in the native tongue. While you can’t be expected to learn the native language of every single country you ever visit, picking up a few key phrases or words will help you make the most of your travels abroad.

7 Tips for Traveling to Non-English Speaking Countries

1. Learn to say at least each of the following in the language of whatever country you’re visiting

Speaking a language is not a requirement for enjoying the beautiful sights at your destination, and no one is suggesting you cannot travel to a country unless you speak the native tongue. In the European Union alone, there are 24 official languages spoken and each of those countries, there are other languages spoken other than the official one. For example in Italy, Italian is the official language but regional languages do coexist with the standard language. Therefore, part of the population are native bilinguals of Italian and a regional language, and some of them may use Italian only as a second language. However there are a few words and phrases that will make your holiday a little smoother. Take a few hours before you go and learn how to say the words below, like hello, please, goodbye and thank you to make all your interactions more polite. If you can say “bonjour” to a  cashier, then just point to a croissant you want and add “s’il vous plait”, you are much less likely to be on the receiving end of the infamous French rudeness (side note: the French are not nearly as rude as people seem to think they are)

Excuse me is another good one to learn so you can catch people’s attention as well as apologize for bumping into them on busy sidewalks or subways.

Just as a safety precaution learn how to say a few distress words, like help, emergency and police, and of course the most useful phrase to know is “Do you speak English?” It is just more polite to say it in the native language than expecting people to understand you everywhere you go.

Learning a few words ahead of time, will go a long way in showing the locals you are trying.

  1. Thank you
  2. Hello
  3. Goodbye
  4. Where is the bathroom? (One word that I find to be almost universal is toilet. In North America we ask where the restroom is or bathroom, but toilet can be understood even in Asia)
  5. Excuse me
  6. How much
  7. The numbers 1 – 20 (Math is one of the most universal languages we have. Not only does 2+2=4 everywhere but most countries use the Hindu-Arabic numeral system)

Remember that English is the universal language of travel. Sometimes signs at tourist attractions are written in both the local language and English. If you are traveling to a destination that is used to dealing with tourists, you will find locals who speak at least a few basic words of English. But when you speak to them, remember to speak slowly and clearly (NOT louder) and use simple vocabulary. Somehow, there are people out there who think if they simply speak louder, people will magically be able to understand English. If only that were true! If you’re interacting with someone who doesn’t speak English, or whose English is limited, be as polite as possible. It really is the best way to successfully communicate. Smile, say ‘thank you’ often, and keep your voice down. And most importantly be patient. Seriously, everything will go more smoothly if you just take a deep breath and find some patience.

2. Interact with the locals and do your research before your trip starts

According to Priceline, 69 percent of locals enjoy it when tourists are curious and excited about their country, city, town  and trying to speak the language is one way to illustrate your enthusiasm. Knowing commonly used phrases and how to ask questions can facilitate conversation and lead you to local restaurants and shops for a more authentic experience. It’s OK if you mispronounce some words; showing a respectful attempt is always appreciated.

This is a general tip, but especially important when traveling to countries with foreign languages. Download a translating app which does not require internet access. Or buy a phrasebook, but remember that you will not necessarily understand the response you get. Write down names of cities, hotels you choose, any attractions you are planning on visiting. It helps to show a taxi driver or someone you are asking directions from if you have it written down since it is unlikely that you will pronounce it correctly. If all else fails, use hand gestures, drawing and body language — just make sure to research etiquette in the country to avoid offending anyone. Body language can be a very effective way of communicating. Sometimes depending on what you are miming or drawing for example, you can get a local to burst out laughing, and that breaks the ice.  So instead of letting the fear of not knowing the language take over, just make a game out of it.

Use local maps that you downloaded prior to your departure, look up how public transportation works so you do not have to spend all your money on taxis.

3. Pointing can prove useful

This is the simplest gesture that conveys the most information at once. If you want a person’s attention on an item, pointing will get you there faster than trying to say “May I please buy one of your delicious pastries?” and pointing is not just for menus, either. Of course, be sure to read up on gestures before you get there. As Smarter Travel recommends, you should make sure you know what a gesture means before using it in another country:

“Hand gestures are almost universally understood. Before you start playing charades however, learn the local meanings of common gestures. In Bulgaria, for example, nodding means no, and shaking your head means yes. Research about local gestures beforehand to make sure you’re not insulting your waitress when trying to gesture for water”.

Even if pointing is universally understood, how you point matters. Some countries accept single-finger points, while others will be offended if you don’t use the whole hand. In some cases, a four-fingered point means something different than a single finger. Be sure to check out the customs for the country you’re visiting before you travel. For example, in Greece, putting up an open palm (what people think of as a high-five gesture) is the equivalent of flipping someone the bird.

4. Etiquette and Courtesy Will Save You a Lot of Trouble

Here’s a useful tip: you are going to mess up. No matter how much you try to prepare, you’re going to encounter some situation where you don’t know what to say or accidentally do something you shouldn’t. In those instances, only one thing can save you, and it’s not an app. It’s courtesy.

Courtesy helps bring out the best in the people who are there to help you, even without the language barrier. Make it a priority to learn how to say things like “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me”. Knowing how to say where is the toilet is a phrase that you will seldom use, because either signs or common sense will show you where they are. But the phrase excuse me, will be your everyday phrase, moving through crowded stores, streets etc. Politely asking to be let through is much more productive than trying to force yourself through a crowd.

I like my guests to also learn the word delicious for when eating in restaurants, a simple word that often results in smiles.  Making the effort and being respectful you will find more people willing to help you find your way. People, regardless of culture, generally like it when others are nice, so keep that in mind when you travel, you are in someone else’s home. It may be special to you that you finally get to see that place you saw on TV, dreamed of traveling to, read about, but you only have a tiny sliver of someone else’s everyday life. Visit with a bit of humility and a lot of respect, and you should do well.

5.  Book a tour, Consider hiring a guide

If not knowing the language stresses you out book a tour package. An all-inclusive ground tour package is a great way to go if you would like someone else take care of all the details.

If Europe is a place that you wish to visit and it is in your budget, consider hiring a guide, book a private guided tour or a small group tour  with myself as your dedicated tour manager would put your mind at ease. 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 local guide like myself can help you with those types of interactions. 

You’ll have someone around who can speak English and the local language, and they can help you out with any concerns. This is also a good way to feel like you have a safety net, and maybe next time you go on a trip, you’ll feel better able to tackle the language barrier.

You can also book a day tour to start your trip, or a handful of day tours throughout your vacation. That way you’ll have the benefit of an English-speaking guide but you have a little more flexibility throughout your trip to do as you please.

Tip: Spring for an audio guide: Sure, the last thing you want to do after waiting in line for a museum is to wait in yet another line for an audio guide. But trust me, most of the time, it’s worth it. While some museums abroad give the names of paintings in both the native language and English, many do not. Part of the experience will be lost when people back home ask you what your favorite painting is, and you can only reply “I don’t know, the names were in Italian.” So, get in another line and ask for an English audio guide when visiting a museum or sight.  You don’t have to use it in every room, but you’ll get a lot more out of the experience if you know what it is you’re looking at.   If you have a real interest in art or a particular museum, or a sight you have so longed to see, I highly recommend hiring a local guide, that can explain the most important pieces of art in the museum or make history come alive in historical sights.  And you will walk away having gained more knowledge, more relaxed for not having had to read your guide book or spent many hours wandering from room to room in a museum without truly understanding what you were looking at. I consider it money well spent.

6. 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, I have 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.
  • TextGrabber: Listening to someone speak another language can be daunting enough, but reading menus, street signs, and electronic manuals in other languages is often a downright herculean task. TextGrabber allows you to point your phone’s camera at the inscrutable text in front of you, and instantly translates it to a language of your choosing.

7. Someone else has been there before you

There are plenty of other people who have traveled to the destination you’re thinking of going. If someone else traveled there and figured out a way around the language differences, you can do it too. Afterwards, you’ll feel great that you met a challenge head on and succeeded.

Don’t hesitate to go somewhere just because of the language barrier even though it might seem impossible to travel to a country with a different language and sometimes a completely different alphabet; it may be difficult at times, but it will be more than worth the extra effort. The experience will change you for the better.  Also remember how much of the world learns English. Even in more exotic, remote parts of the world, people who work in some sort of travel and tourism position will most likely know a few phrases of basic English. Remember that simple hand gestures, miming, drawing, and pointing go a long way towards breaking through the language barrier. Don’t let a fear of not speaking the language hold you back. Just think of it as another part of the journey, and enjoy.

We create authentic trip experiences in Italy that immerse you in the local culture. Contact Audrey to join one of our exclusive small group tours, or a customized private tour, and experience Italy as an insider! 

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, to European native parents, and raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, and how I look at the world and travel continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish and English of course). I have spent a lifetime in several countries in Western Europe, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working. I grew up with the local customs and traditions of these countries.