How do you travel alone in a place where you don’t speak the language?
I am often asked about this issue by readers who are afraid of feeling lost on their trips if there is a language barrier. It’s a real fear and one that leads most tourists into tour groups (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or makes them decide not to travel altogether.
I also had some anxieties before I started traveling. I envisioned walking to every street vendor, kiosk, and cab driver without being able to communicate. My excursions may finish in a tempest of uncertainty and I would feel dissatisfied and confused. Although it happens periodically, it was infrequent and considerably less distressing than I had thought.
If you want to travel freely and you don’t know the language of the countries you wish to visit, here are some basic measures to help you:
English is a widespread second language
At most venues that accept Western tourists, there is someone who speaks English. Even in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China — a place so far off the tourist track that most tourists never make their way there – I found a guesthouse operated by a Californian couple!
English is the language of tourism. Because you’re reading this right now, you presumably speak enough English to get by on your travels. Most individuals who work in tourism know at least a bit about it and use it to interact with tourists of many ethnicities.
Of course, the more out of the way you travel, the less likely you are to locate English speakers, so keep the following means of communication in mind:
There’s a lot in the context
As I walked to the Bondowoso bus station on Java Island, Indonesia, the locals hanging out there quickly asked me “Ijen? and then informed me straight which bus I needed. I didn’t have to explain to anyone that I needed a bus as I was at the bus terminal, that was evident. I didn’t need to explain that I wanted to travel to Ijen because it’s one of the few locations visitors desire to go to, and I was plainly a tourist. Nor was it an exceptional circumstance. It happens practically wherever I go.
So much is obvious via context. If I stroll to a food stall or sit down at a restaurant, it’s evident that I want to eat. If I go into a hostel, clearly I’d like a place to sleep, and if I walk into a bus station, I presumably want to travel somewhere. Then all I have to do is state what I want to eat or where I’d want to go – one word, maybe two – and we’ve spoken all we need to say to feed me or proceed to the next destination.
When in doubt, utilize the “point and shrug” strategy.
When I initially relocated to Taiwan, I had to create a bank account on my own. I was a Mandarin novice at the time and couldn’t read the papers, so I shrugged and handed it to the lady at the office with a gentle, I’m sorry I don’t understand, can you assist me? smile. She was understanding, got a pen and filled out the documents for me.
When I needed help mending my bike in the Cambodian countryside, I rode up to a home that housed a workshop, pointed to the saddle of the bike, and offered the same shrug and the same grin. The man kindly restored it for me (at no expense) while a charming bunch of youngsters ran over to say hello — the only English word they knew. I left with a working bike seat, no words are needed.
With a few exceptions, the locals typically grasp very well that I can’t speak Khmer, Thai, or the language of where I am. It’s quite easy to communicate through hand gestures and facial expressions if that’s all you have. That said…
Sample jokes may go a long way
Learning to at least say “hi” and “thank you” makes you more likable as a foreigner. When I need anything, instead of rushing into a place and demanding my requirements and wishes in English, I start with a hello in the local language. It’s courteous, it shows I’m trying and it shows respect.
I normally discover this by asking the first local I interact with. Maybe it’s someone at the guest house, someone selling me a SIM card, or the cab driver at the airport. Normally, they are thrilled that I inquired and wanted to know, imparting the knowledge with excitement.
Learn hand gestures
In Vietnam, a native man waved at me by extending his arm, facing his palm down, and waving the back of his hand in my way. He made me observe the bun cha (addictive rice noodles with tangy fish sauce, crisp veggies, and pig patties) he was creating. I knew he meant ‘come here’ because I had examined hand motions before arriving.
In the Maldives, when we ate our meal, we did it with our hands. I utilized my right while my traveling partner, a natural left-hander, unintentionally entered with his left. As I spoke to him to change, he felt a bit guilty because he hadn’t recognized that it was disrespectful to use his left hand to eat and make hand motions.
Locals typically appreciate that if you’re not from an area you might not comprehend what hand signals signify, but at the risk of upsetting someone, it’s wise to know in advance what signifies what in the nation you will visit. It also demonstrates how much effort you have put into honoring local norms and people tend to feel more helpful when they feel appreciated.
Assistance will typically find you
I know that sounds extremely damsel in distress. If everything else fails, are you relying on outside support that is not guaranteed? It sounds like a fantastic strategy!
This seems to be true, however. Once when I was the lone foreigner on a bus that broke down in Bali, we stopped on the side of the road for a mechanic, and a local on board who had an understanding of English came to explain the issue. I’ve had much of it previously owing to context – the bus has broken down, we’ve now gotten off the bus and a person with a wrench is banging on it, and we have to wait – but it was wonderful that he got off pointed at me and made sure I understood.
As I was queuing to verify my address in Berlin, the person handing out the seat numbers didn’t speak English (which is really unusual in this cosmopolitan city, but that’s neither here nor there). When I turned back and said, “Can someone multilingual help me here? someone instantly stepped out of line and translated.
That happens all the time, whether in Asia or Europe. Usually, someone can chat for at least a bit and help. This individual is typically pleased to locate you and help you if you take note of the country’s humor, smile, be calm and courteous, and attempt everything you can.
It’s simpler than it appears to go to a new area without learning the language. Put yourself out there, and you never know what you might learn and who you might meet.
Do you have any tips to add? Join the debate in the comments below.