9 Tips to Survive Abroad Without Knowing the Language

Traveling to a foreign country is always so exciting but it can also be incredible intimidating if you don’t know the language. Nothing is worse than feeling completely lost and alone while being so far away from home. Though English is spoken worldwide by 1.5 billion people, you are still likely to find yourself in a situation where no one understands you while traveling abroad. Whether it's ordering food at a local café, telling the taxi driver your destination, or asking a street vendor the price of that amazing leather handbag, knowing how to get by can be very useful. Here are some tips I have picked up throughout my travels in Europe, South America, and Middle East to help me survive abroad without knowing the language.

1.    Carry a small notebook and pen

This has saved me so many times! When I was in Athens, Greece my friends and I were taking a ferry to a smaller island and needed to get to the port. Our taxi driver couldn’t understand us or where we were trying to go. I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down the port name to show the driver. It was easier for him to visually see the words than it was to try and understand our sad attempt at the Greek language. Ever since then, I always travel around with a small notebook. I also use my notebook to draw simple and universal symbols like a toilet or dollar sign to communicate the bathroom or bank. A cross or waves can help you communicate local sites such as a church or the beach. Playing Pictionary might be an easier and less painful way to get your point across.

2.    Have a few key phrases in your back pocket

Learning a few common sayings before your trip is a great way to feel confident while traveling abroad. I like to know how to say a handful of basic phrases such as “yes”, “no”, “where is…”, “how much is…”, “please”, “thank you”, “sorry” and “Do you speak English?”. Making an effort to speak in the native tongue will get you very far in most countries and help you survive your trip abroad. Speaking of in your “back pocket”, carrying a travel size phrase book is very helpful, especially if you aren’t great with languages. If you prefer the digital route, check out the IStone app. IStone is a digital phrasebook that teaches more than 300 everyday phrases involving all the aspects of traveling. It is limited on the number of languages, however they have recently added Spanish and German.

3.    Download travel apps

Speaking of apps, when I studied abroad almost 10 years ago, having easily access to unlimited information wasn’t an option. Now when I travel, I have my smart phone loaded with handy apps to help me communicate and understand the country I’m visiting. I recommend Google Translate, which interprets words and phrases in over 50 languages. Here in Argentina I am constantly using Google Translate, especially at the grocery store and when eating out. Narrowing down 15 types of “crème” to find sour cream is next to impossible without Google Translate. Some other travel apps I constantly use are TripIt, XE Currency, Skyscanner, Hopper, TripAdvisor, Rome2Rio and WhatsApp. Keep an eye out for my future post about my top travel apps. 

4.    Hire a local guide or book a tour

Hiring a local guide can be relatively inexpensive in some countries and is a great way to learn about the culture and history of an area. When I travel, I enjoying doing touristy things but also I like to see how the natives live their day to day lives. A local guide can give you a glimpse of the local life and help communicate for you throughout your visit. As a woman with fair skin, blond hair and green eyes, there are some countries that it might be necessary to hire a guide for safety reasons. I also recommend booking an English speaking tour group. Often inexpensive and usually including transportation, tour groups are a fantastic way to learn about the history and culture of the area you are visiting. When I was visiting my family in Jerusalem, Israel, I paid for an English speaking tour of the old city. Though I could have explored the area by myself, being part of a group tour made me feel secure. I learned so much about the history and culture of Jerusalem from my guide and I even got to try fresh pita bread right from the oven!

5.    Hand Gestures

Non-verbal communication is the most universal language and unbelievably helpful when traveling abroad! Whenever I am in a foreign county, I use hand gestures all the time. Nonverbal communication, like pointing, can help to decipher directions from a helpful local or assist in communicating a menu order. Miming or charades can also be a great way to get your point across. Be sure to research hand gestures prior to your travel because some hand gestures have unique meanings that are specific to the culture. This leads me to the next tip.

6.    Understanding cultural etiquette

As mentioned above, some hand gestures such as the okay sign or thumbs up can be seen as offensive in some cultures. It’s important to investigate the national response to certain hand motions and socially acceptable communication styles of the country you are visiting. While traveling in Argentina, we learned that their definition of personal space is a lot closer than Americans are used to. They also give a kiss on the cheek to say hello and good bye. Japan is known for being very conscious about etiquette and manners whereas Brazil is very laid back. Knowing the basic cultural etiquette will keep you from getting yourself in a sticky situation.

7.    Talk with a concierge

Whenever I travel and stay in a hotel, I always talk with the concierge. They have incredible insight to the area and are always friendly. They are knowledgeable about local attractions, nearby restaurants, and booking tours. I’ve even gone into hotels that I’m not staying at to ask their concierge for directions when I am lost. The concierge often speaks English and is happy to help point you in the right direction. They are also great with arranging transportation. When we were in Dubrovnik, our flight was leaving incredibly early the next day and we needed a ride to the airport. We went and spoke with our concierge about our transportation possibilities. She offered us a variety of options including a black car, taxi, and shuttle bus with pricing for all options. We opted for a taxi. Our concierge not only arranged for the taxi pick up but also an early morning wake-up call so we didn’t miss our flight.

8.    Maps

First thing I do when I arrive in a new city is grab a paper map. It’s super old school and you may stand out as a tourist if your obvious about using it, but it can come in handy. When I travel, I like to take public transportation. Paper maps illustrate public transportation routes, indicating direction and stops. You can usually find free maps at airports, tourist information offices and train/bus stations. If you prefer to go with a digital map, Google maps now offers offline map downloads. TripAdvisor also features downloadable offline map of major tourist area. I like to use TripAdvisor because you can save local restaurants, hotels, and things to do which show up on their offline map.

9.    Figure out transportation from airport

Nothing is more stressful than arriving at the airport or train station and not knowing how to get to your hotel. Before coming to Argentina, we decided to hired a taxi driver to come pick us up from the airport and take us to our Airbnb. Usually we would take public transportation or pick up a cab at the airport, however we felt hiring a taxi driver ahead of time would be best for our circumstances. Partially because we read to be cautious about taking random taxis from the airport and we had just traveled 35 long hours with a dog (read about our first week here). When we went to Amsterdam on our honeymoon, I was much more relaxed about transportation because I had been to Amsterdam once before while studying abroad. I knew that public transportation from the airport to the city center was extremely easy to navigate. Of course, I grabbed a free map which helped us navigate the metro system to our hotel. When arranging for transportation from the airport I always consider the following: public transportation accessibility, taxi costs and safety, the day and time of arrival, and distance. If you are arriving late at night or on a holiday, it may be best to take a taxi because sometimes public transportation is limited at night, on weekends, and holidays.

I hope these tips come in handy for you as much as they have for me! How do you get by without knowing the language? 

Please leave your tips and comments below! We look forward to hearing from you! 

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