Some of the most interesting travel experiences come from experiencing a brand new culture and space. Much of the time, this comes along with a new language. As a traveler, there are a few things to remember when visiting a place where you do not speak the predominant language.
Learn Some Basic Phrases
Learning a few key questions, statements, and responses can not only present you as friendlier to strangers, it can help your trip go more smoothly. Some important/useful phrases include:
- My name is ____.
- Thank you!
- Can you show me how to get to ____?
- I am lost.
- I do not speak ____. Do you speak English/French?
- (For a taxi) Can you take me to ___?
- How much does this cost?
- Does this contain ___? (Useful for those with food allergies or sensitivities)
- I need help/help me.
- Where is the toilet?
- Excuse me!
- I'm sorry
It is also helpful to write down a list of cities, your hotel name, your emergency contact, your travel companion's contact, and any sites you wish to visit.
As you may not understand the response you get, a phrasebook (or offline-enabled translation pack on a phone app) can help. If you find someone who speaks a bit of your native language, speak slowly and clearly with simple vocabulary. If they do not initially understand, try again with a different word choice. Avoid stating the same thing in a louder voice.
The universal language of conversation is body language. Communication is estimated to be 80% based on non-verbal cues, so don't be shy to mime out something you cannot otherwise say. Having a notepad for a quick drawing is also a useful asset as a traveller. Do not fear looking silly! In most instances, people will appreciate your effort and attempt to solve the issue with you. As well, in any situation with someone who does not speak the same language as you, a smile and positive body language (i.e., no crossed arms or tapping feet) will result in a more successful encounter.
One thing to seriously investigate before your trip is the local gesture interpretations. While you may assume a simple nod of the head can indicate agreement, in certain places (such as Bulgaria), nodding your head indicates "no," while shaking it back and forth means "yes." As well, pointing your finger – and how it is pointed – can be either helpful or extremely rude, depending on the local culture.
Conversation abilities aside, one of the largest difficulties of a new language zone is the inability to read signage and directions. Investing in a quality map, in your native language, is one of the best things a traveller can do in this situation. While GPS apps or software can be just as useful, they also rely on technology that could potentially fail and leave you stranded. If you chose to use GPS, be sure to have a hard-copy map as well. Familiarize yourself with the map prior to a larger trek, and be sure you understand how to orient yourself.
In terms of technology, the Google Translate app has a new feature that allows image translation. Pointing your phone camera at a street sign, the app will real-time translate the image so it is readable in your native language.
The most important thing to remember when visiting somewhere with an unfamiliar language is to be courteous, and have a sense of humour. Kindness and patience will get you further than any guidebook or memorized phrase will. If you are making an effort to communicate, and exude positive body language, you will interact far more successfully with locals. As well, the ability to laugh at yourself is important. Retaining your sense of humour may make a seemingly bad situation become a cherished travel story.