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

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.

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