Tips for Traveling to a Country Where You Don’t Speak the Language

Once upon a time, I went to a French speaking country. Here’s the thing: I don’t speak French. And when I say, I don’t speak French, I mean the extent of my French is bonjour, bonsoir (learned while actually on the trip LOL), merci, si vous plait, un, duex, trois, and croissant. That’s all I got. So, to help those who may be nervous about venturing out there with lacking language skills, I put together this list of tips for traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language.

Learn a Few Words Before You Go

See above. I did’t know much of any French, but I made sure that I knew some basic pleasantries. Please, thank you, and hello go a long way. I also (kind of) knew how to ask if someone spoke English. But if you can at least be polite and show locals that you are trying on some level, they are usually more helpful and receptive when you quickly revert back to English (or whatever language you speak).


Try to Mimic the Local Inflection

Not in a rude way but try to sound French. I quickly picked up on how locals said “Bonjour”, almost sing songy, so I tried to sound more like a native speaker. Similarly, do not, I repeat, do not just ‘Americanize’ words (i.e. in Spanish just adding an ‘o’ to the end, or something similar). In Costa Rica once, I heard a guy trying to ask for goat cheese. He knew queso was cheese so he thought it cute to ask for “queso de goat-o.” He really just looked like a total jerk.


Use a Translator App

Technology is your friend in this type of situation. If you have cell coverage or WiFi, Google Translate will allow you to type in what you are trying to say and have it translated. Or you can speak it into your phone and it will speak it back in whatever language you need.


Befriend a Local

If you happen to know or become buddies with a local who speaks both languages, use that person when you are unable to bridge the gap and are having a lost in translation moment.


Use Other Languages to Your Favor

I don’t speak French, but once upon a time I was really good at Spanish. While I am much more rusty in Spanish now, I can still read it pretty decently. Well in case you didn’t know, Spanish and French are both romance languages and sister languages. So this proved particularly helpful at restaurants trying to decipher menus. I know chicken in Spanish is pollo, so when looking at the menu, I was able to use context clues to determine that poulet was chicken in French. It clearly doesn’t work for everything but some things are similar and I could at least piece together something.


Make an Effort- But Laugh at Yourself

Sometimes, all you have to do is break the ice. If you can make an effort, even struggling through it, and then kind of laugh at yourself, it may just encourage the other person to chuckle and be more empathetic. And then that person is likely to be more willing to help.


Above All Else, Don’t Let it Stop You

This is so key. Yes, you will screw up. Yes, you may feel like a fool. But don’t let that stop you from going and seeing the world. Because unless you are going to become the polyglot of all polyglots, there will always be somewhere where you don’t speak the language. But don’t let that discourage you. Never stop exploring!


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I am a lawyer. I am a journalist. I am a writer. I am a photographer. And I love to travel.

8 comments on “Tips for Traveling to a Country Where You Don’t Speak the Language”

  1. I am a huge travel person!! Love this! My plan is to travel to more countries where I don’t know the language…especially languages that are not part of the romance family of languages. Your suggestion to learn a few words is brilliant….

  2. As always, these are some really great tips. Although I took French in high school, I didn’t remember much of it when I traveled to Italy a few years back. But luckily I was with a group and we always had translators or natives that spoke english.

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