Authored by Insureandgo.com.au
Current estimates are that there are over 6,500 different spoken languages of the world. And while English is one of the three most-spoken languages – behind Chinese and Spanish – only 27.5% of countries have English as an official language.
So for travelers looking to discover some of the world’s most thrilling sites, it’s a given that you’ll eventually venture into a part of the planet where you won’t understand a word. This can be daunting, but there are plenty of ways to prepare to make sure that your trip runs as smoothly as possible.
Say What? Travelling in Places Where You Don’t Speak the Language
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Take a Short Language Course
If you’re planning a trip to a place with a fairly common language, why not go one step deeper in your planning and learn a bit of the local language before you leave? There are plenty of ways you can do so, to suit all budgets and learning styles.
It’s always worth taking a look at local colleges and learning centres to see if they have any relevant language classes available. If you’re in a city, the range of options can be incredible. But if time or distance rules out taking a class, there are a lot of other possibilities.
One option is to find a language-learning app that offers integrated speaking, listening and reading. The industry stand-out is Duolingo, an app that offers courses in 23 languages. A former Apple iPhone App of the Year winner, it’s a very convenient way to fit in language lessons around your life.
There are also plenty of free online courses, from everyone from the BBC to major universities. The BBC’s Languages hub, while no longer updated, offers some amazing resources for learning essential phrases in 40 different languages, and has beginners courses for seven of those.
Major international universities also offer free online langue courses through platforms like Coursera, EdX and Futurelearn. Check out the offerings well ahead of time as they are often only offered once or twice each year.
Buy Some Apps
There are hundreds of apps available for Apple and Android devices that are designed to help you travel in a foreign country. It’s easy to impulse buy in the app store, but to avoid wasting money, do your research. Read customer reviews and look at star ratings, including the total number of ratings as a single five-star rating isn’t as reliable an indicator of quality as 100 4-star ratings.
Look for apps that store the information locally rather than requiring you to access the internet every time you look up a word, to reduce roaming data costs and to prevent you getting stuck when you’re out of reception range. Make sure you download all the relevant data when you have access to WIFI.
Hire a Translator
Sometimes, hiring a bilingual local guide is simply the best way to go. Not only do they know the area, but they understand the nuances of the local language and can help you get the most out of your interactions with locals.
Depending on where you are, hiring a translator can be quite expensive. Pick the right days of the trip in which you’d like to hire one: earlier is the trip might give you the information and tips that will help you get the most out of the rest of the trip.
Again, this is an area where doing your research helps: even though accredited guiding companies may be more expensive to use, they are far less risky, both in terms of quality and safety.
Take a Guided Tour
Another option is to choose not to go it alone, and rather join a tour. With a guide who is experienced in travelling in the country and has the support of a tour company, it’s a far easier way to travel.
You do lose out in authentic local experiences and interaction with locals, but the gains in terms of ease and understanding can offset those. It’s definitely an option to consider.
Go for an Old-Fashioned Phrase Book
There’s an inherent danger in relying on technology – especially technology that relies on batteries that can run out two hours into a ten-hour train ride. So have an old-fashioned phrase book, or even just some printed pages with key phrases in the local language, as an essential backup.
Having key information, including your accommodation details, written in the local language can also be really helpful when you just can’t get the pronunciation right. Please also check what is covered as a part of your travel insurance before you start your trip.
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We are traveling to a place where we do not speak the language. I opted for the phrase book; my son [a Millennial, of course] opted for an app. I wonder who will do better when we reach places without service- or electrical power.
Haha he might want to invest in some type of solar battery charger before you both leave – guide book is heavier but granted doesn’t have a battery life :)
Many people who don’t speak the language of the place, prefer joining a tour with a bilingual tour guide, they are however expensive tours. Translation apps are probably a more rewarding way to learn the basic of a new language and also a great way to connect with the locals. Nice post!
Bilingual tour guides are fantastic, this is how we explored China last year and it was so helpful to have someone with us who was fluent. For Spanish speaking countries that’s my husband :D
But yes, sometimes these tours can be very expensive, so translation apps are a great way to go, and as you said, also encourages you to actually learn and interact too, which is more rewarding than traveling with a guide.
Glad you enjoyed the post Michela!
Duolingo app does help a lot. It is my go to go. But I do opt in for a translator when things are out of control.
Glad to hear you’ve had success with the Duolingo app Lydia! Translators are the way I go too if I need help filling in a gap :)
Those statistics are interesting. And your recommendations are great. My daughter used Duolingo before her student exchange to Argentina and it really helped her.
Duolingo is an incredible app – glad to hear it helped your daughter – hope she’s having a wonderful exchange in Argentina!
I usually practice with Duo lingo, it matters to at least know a little to get by around the country. Another app that I liked was speak, play , translate. It took more time but basically, you can make the person speak to the app— then the app will translate it for you ( voice). The only downside to it, apart from it’s slow— you need data.
Thanks for the tip on speak, play , translate – will look into that app too – sounds great, like you’re traveling with your own personal translator :) The only issue might be data if you’re in a foreign country, but there are a lot of portable WiFi devices now which specifically cater data for overseas, so could definitely work!
Since we both speak 7 languages, we often find someone who understands one of the languages we speak. But it’s always good to bring along a phrase-book, especially when traveling to off-the-beaten-path areas. In general, local people tend to be much more welcoming when they see that we really try to speak their language by checking our phrase-book for example. And that’s how we also get to make conversations and learn about the local cultures. :) Another good option (probably the best like you mentioned it in your post) is to have a private local guide, which we often do when traveling to Asia. Thank you for sharing this post!
Wow, 7 languages is IMPRESSIVE! I have enough trouble with English lol :D! Seriously, I’m super in awe of your skill – I’ve always wished I had the brain for retaining languages.
Totally agree that locals are friendlier and more welcoming when they see you making an effort to speak in their language. Even if it’s terrible and you end up having to play charades (been there done that once or twice!) it’s at least an ice breaker and a fond memory from the day :)
So glad you enjoyed the post :)
This is such good advice. We always try to at least learn the basic words – please, thank you – before we go to a country where they speak another language. I’m going to have to check out some of the apps you mention. I think technology has made communication during travel so much easier.
Technology has definitely closed the gap in the language barrier – I can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been traveling 20 years ago without the incredible help we have today – probably a lot of charades!!
I really love traveling to places where I don’t understand people. It gave me a totally different feeling that Yes! I’m away from home. Hearing different language that you’re not familiar is for me very fascinating. And yes it is important to learn at least the basic when you visit these countries so you can still connect to the people.
I totally agree with you Cai, I think the language barrier is what first hits home that you’ve landed somewhere totally foreign and exotic! And I love the challenge of chatting to people / laughing with friendly strangers through games of dictionary and charades to communicate :D!
Agree also that it’s important to learn a few basic phrases, not only does this help to get through the day to day, it also goes a long way to breaking the ice with the locals – I’ve found people go out of their way to help you if they see you’re making an effort, and I feel it’s a respectful thing for us as travelers to do too :)
I always feel so guilty when I travel to another country and can’t speak the language. I normally try to learn a few of the key phrases before I go and generally that’s appreciated. I second DuoLingo! It’s such a fun way to learn the basics of another language (and a little addictive!) Google Translate is also pretty handy, and I try to keep a few important words on my phone to show anyone if I get stuck :) Have you seen you can also buy flip cards with the word and picture for some languages? They are handy, but probably not the most convenient to carry around everywhere. I think apps are the way to go!
You and me both – I feel we expect people visiting our country to speak English, so why shouldn’t they expect the same from us when we visit them. I feel very bad for assuming I’ll be fine everywhere I go because English is a prominent language.
Knowing even a few key phrases is definitely always appreciated – I think it’s usually just about seeing that you’re making an effort, and then people are willing to help :)
Google Translate is awesome too – it’s been a lifesaver in the past! Flip cards is a great idea – I hadn’t thought of that before, but I can see how it would be super handy. Could definitely keep them in a corner of your backpack just in case, and as a backup in case your phone battery runs low and you’re out your apps. Thanks for the tip!
6,500 different spoken languages in the world!!! WOW. That is daunting but I do try to learn a bit of the local language. At the very least the emergency, survival words (Hello, Goodbye, Water, food, washroom, supermarket etc) As a lover of travel apps and technology, language translation apps would always be one of my first go to’s. I have a few faves on my iPhone but nothing beats a translator, a guide or a local. They are the best to travel around with. Not only do they know and can teach you the language they know tons of other important things: Like how to say beer and where to find beer! hee hee
Quite an overwhelming number isn’t it! Makes me to happy though to know that our increasingly globalized world is still very diverse :)
Emergency survival words are great to learn before you go, or at least have on hand, and downloaded in apps before you go. Language translation apps are my usual go-to as well – but you’re right, there are gaps in these apps that only a translator or local guide will ever be able to fill.
Haha yes, the first thing we learn from our guide in the Czech Republic was how to say Cheers … Na zdraví!!
In the initial years we used to be wary about stepping into a country where the local language was greek and latin to us. However now we are able to communicate and forge ahead. Technology has helped in the form of apps, and probably we too have picked up phrases here and there. Being in India where the language changes as you travel from state to state also helps.
I’m glad to hear that you’re traveling more because of the technology and apps which help to bridge the language barrier :) We really have seen incredible advances which has made it easier and easier to communicate.
I had no idea that the language in India changes as you travel between states. Sounds like dealing in foreign languages is something you’re quite used to then!
I only knew thank you in Korean when I went there but know a few more in Mandarin and Japanese. I once learned about 4 words in Croatian and had them all laughing in a Zagreb bakery ( I did get a free desert)
I usually learn thankyou too as my staple word – also excuse me and hello. Lol thats awesome that you got a free dessert! Always an ice breaker when you at least try!