Central America

Can I Travel if I Don’t Know the Local Language?

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

Fresh Fishmarket - Cadiz, SpainGood Morning! Buon Giorno! Καλημέρα! Have you caught yourself dreaming about an international trip only to have that nagging voice in your head remind you that you don’t speak the local language? If you’re like many aspiring travelers I’ve talked to, you might eliminate destinations or entire trips because of language barriers. It causes uncertainty, especially in novice travelers, or those considering their first solo trip. It also can lead to the cancellation or re-direction of what would otherwise be incredible adventures.

Let me be blunt – it doesn’t matter. Knowing the language in (most) destinations is a nicety, one which will enrich your experience, but is anything but a necessity. Especially for a shorter, more casual trip, where you expect to travel for a week or two. I’ve traveled to 31 countries so far and spent more than 6 months on the road over the last 5 years. Even with all of that travel I’ve yet to have any major issues despite the fact that I only speak one and a half languages and use Google Translate on a regular basis to convert booking and information websites to English.

My native tongue is English which I supplement with terrible Spanish. I’m not talking, “Oh I’m fluent but I can’t write in Spanish”, I’m talking the leftover scraps of memory from Spanish classes my Freshman, Sophomore and Junior year of High School. I’m guessing that most of you have at least a tiny bit of Spanish or French under your belt. If not, don’t despair. There’s still hope.

The biggest roadblock to communicating internationally isn’t language…it’s fear. Fear of being lost and helpless, fear of being embarrassed and fear of making mistakes. The truth is everybody makes mistakes and nobody cares, heck the vast majority of people are just happy you tried. Lost and helpless? You’re more likely to get stepped on by an elephant.

When we are nervous our bodies start to mis-communicate. We become less expressive and more likely to avoid physical illustrations and gestures. Some 85% of communication is non-verbal. If you relax, accept that you’ll have a few confusing/awkward situations, put a warm smile on your face, and invest a little effort, you’re going to be able to communicate no matter where you are. Sure, you won’t be able to stop and ask to borrow some sugar, but you’ll still be able to engage, communicate and get around.

For good measure, make sure you always carry a small notepad and pen to write things down (eg: directions and the cost of items) or draw a picture of something you need. Also, don’t rule out continuing to talk and explain in English even after it has been established that you don’t understand the local tongue. While counter-intuitive, I observed this trick employed by locals while on the road. It recognizes that the essence of communication flows much more naturally when talking comfortably and leverages it. It gives people the opportunity to pick out words they may recognize, judge flow, tone, and makes it easier for you to gesture and engage. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating being an ‘ugly tourist’. Don’t be an individual who is exploring a country and assumes everyone should and must speak English.

There’s a huge difference in personal interactions when you are actively trying to communicate. While exploring a country without a knowledge of the local tongue make the added effort to learn ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and ‘I’m sorry I don’t understand’. It’s always important to remember that it’s their country, their language, and, that YOU are a visitor in their home. Above all, if you follow a simple rule (don’t be a dick), you’ll find that the sky is the limit on human openness and hospitality.

Lastly, do your research and use your common sense. Do you need to know Italian for a trip to Rome and Florence in Italy? Probably not. Should you establish a more advanced understanding of the local language when preparing for a multi-month hiking trek across rural Brazil? Probably.

If you can practice a foreign language before (or during) your trip, jump on it! While the local language isn’t a requirement for travel, it is a huge factor in the richness. Basic communication will give you the warmth of a culture but it’s only through speaking the language that you can begin to truly understand and appreciate the depth.

Adventure and amazing people await. Don’t let baseless excuses hold you back. Get out there, meet amazing people, and learn about yourself as you discover new and amazing places. Who knows, you might even learn a fun word or two in the process!

Still not satisfied? Everyone I know speaks highly of Rosetta Stone’s line of language learning software.

*This post was originally published on GenJuice.com

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

19 Comments

  • Andrew Ryno
    June 27, 2011

    I was thinking about this today, actually. I’m currently in Hungary and over the last 2-3 days I’ve been here, I’ve only learned 2 Hungarian words–one of which I’m probably pronouncing wrong. There are a lot of people that speak English all over Europe so it’s easy enough to get the point across of what you need.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      June 27, 2011

      Yep, and at the end of the day – communication is communication. The words are just a nicety that speed the process!

      Reply
  • crazy sexy fun traveler
    June 27, 2011

    In many places around the world you can use English, but it is definitely better if you speak the language of the country you visit. For example, for me in Mexico now it was much easier when speaking Spanish, and it saved me so much money. And when I was in the jungle, they hardly spoke Spanish beside their Indian language, so otherwise I would never get to know so much about their life if I only spoke English.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      June 27, 2011

      It’s definitely better to learn it, but if presented with the choice between not going, or stressing out over the lack of the language vs. going and enjoying the trip/adventure. I don’t think the language barrier is something that should ever dissuade people. RTW travelers are a prime example. If they only scheduled their trip through countries that spoke the 1 or 2 languages they knew, they’d miss out on a lot.

      Reply
  • Jennifer
    June 27, 2011

    I am horribly monolingual — even my Spanish (after 4 years of it in college) is embarrassingly basic. I obviously still travel to other countries too. I hope that lack of language ability doesn’t hold back others.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      June 28, 2011

      Amazing how the only way to truly learn and engage a language is immersion isn’t it?

      Reply
  • Caz Makepeace
    July 1, 2011

    Absolutely you can! I agree with what you say. Language barriers should not be something to fear or hold you back from travelling. They can enhance your experience. Spending time trying to communicate with the local people can be so enjoyable. do your best to learn as much of the local language as you can, at least the basics. It will open up many doors of communication.
    The only place we had difficulty was China. It was hard for us, being vegetarians, and trying to explain that with our language guide book. A good idea is to get someone to write the most essential phrases for you on a flash card, and then you can use that when you get stuck.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      July 6, 2011

      Great insights, thanks Caz! China sounds like a pretty intense adventure. I can only imagine the vegetarian aspect made for some interesting challenges at times!

      Reply
  • Natalie
    July 6, 2011

    Love this article and all of it is so true. Also agree with your comment about immersion. I struggle at times with my Turkish and I have been in the country for 11 years.

    A gentlemen I spoke to yesterday said he was highly disappointed with himself because he had spent thousands on books and still could not grasp the language. I asked him if the lack of knowledge for the language had held him back in his life in Turkey, the smile on his face when he realised that it had not held him back was priceless.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      July 6, 2011

      Thanks Natalie! It’s amazing how much of a language comes down to finesse and contextual detail isn’t it? There are times when English gives me a run for my money and its my native language. I can only imagine how challenging it must be for foreigners.

      That sounds like an awesome moment with that guy. A gift really. I guess that’s the trick. We get caught up in the language, and forget the importance of communicating.

      Reply
  • Bill Smith
    July 12, 2011

    Learn “please, thank you, and basic counting” , this can be done the first 1/2 day. I have found that if I attempt to speak the local language, the listener releases that his English is far better than my whatever. then he is not so embarrassed to try English. Speak like a Sicilian (lots of hand gestures)

    Reply
  • vira
    July 13, 2011

    my friend and I got lost a lot when traveling in China, cos not a lot of people could speak English, or maybe just didn’t care enough. But that turned out to be fun, we accidentally discover some places and things that we didn’t even plan to see.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      July 15, 2011

      I believe it, rural China would be a difficult one for English dependent speakers (myself included). It just goes to show that with a laid back approach to things you’ll come out ok and enjoy the experience!

      Reply
  • Overcoming Language Barriers – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays — VirtualWayfarer
  • frank
    June 7, 2012

    I just don’t understand that every single travel related website or blogs says the same thing: Bring a small note book. I have brought my moleskine notebook to 22 countries, and so far I haven’t used it once.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      June 7, 2012

      To be honest, I almost never use mine either. Usually there is a pen and some sort of paper on hand if I need it. Also, now that I carry a smartphone with me, I can just use that. However, there have been a few times when it was an absolute life saver…the trick is heaving it readily on hand and remembering you actually have it with you.

      Reply
  • street style fashion
    July 26, 2012

    When I initially commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on every time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there a way you are able to remove me from that service? Many thanks!

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      July 27, 2012

      There will be an option in the emails…contact me directly if that does not fix it.

      Reply

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