Dealing with Language Barriers While Traveling

News alert (full stop) Other countries speak different languages (full stop) People are confused and scared about what to do in these circumstances (full stop) Is there anyway normal people who haven't ever been great at learning a new language can still have a great time in these countries (question mark) Or are they doomed to being limited only to the Anglophone nations for their vacations (question mark) Find out what they can do to deal with these language barriers here and now as we direct you over to our experts in the field, the Normal Nomads (full stop)

(If you didn't the first time, please read that intro with a Trans-Atlantic accent like this. Thanks!)

Hi there!

We've touched on it before, but we (the neighborly Normal Nomads) thought it was about time we really talked about how to communicate with people in other countries.

One of the tactics we use to save money is to avoid tourist traps. This includes anything with the words "Stress-Free" or "All Inclusive" attached. These organizations understand, quite correctly, there are people in the world who will pay a large premium to avoid awkward situations.

They will provide your meals so you don't have to figure out how to read a menu.
They will arrange your housing so you don't have to download Google Translate.
They will arrange your transportation so you don't have to inform a driver to "stop here."

To sum up, they charge you a lot of money because you don't speak the language.

The way we see it, you have three options.

1. Pay the money

Listen, if you have more money than time (like many Americans), then it is completely understandable why you might go with this option. We are not judging the people who actively and intentionally choose this option, but rather are just letting you know there are other options available in case you didn't know.

2. Learn the language

This is certainly the hardest option, but probably not the most expensive (that is still number one).

If you are willing to take the money you would have spent on "All Inclusivity" and instead put half of that money into language lessons for the country you are visiting, and throw in study time for an hour a day for a few months prior, you could probably have a pretty great grasp on the language before you even arrive.

But what if you are visiting two countries that speak different languages? If you are two people then you could split the languages... we suppose? And if you're visiting three countries? Hmm... well, no one said this was a perfect solution.

We don't want to talk too much about what it takes to learn a language. Monica is doing a great job learning Vietnamese, but whether her success could translate to anyone else (ever) would be speculation.

There are lots of options you perhaps didn't know about, such as being able to video chat with a professional teacher at convenient times for discounted rates.

All together, there are loads of websites out there that will walk you through what it takes to learn a new foreign language in a few month, many of which have a lot more experience than us with the subject. You are best off seeing what Google has to say. (We haven't used any of them and thus don't feel comfortable recommending any, thus the lack of specific sites being named here.)

3. Get Awkward

And this is what we are here to talk about today!

First and foremost, it is important to remember English is a very common second language for people throughout the world.

If you are ever in a bad circumstance and need someone to speak clear and precise English, you probably can find them. Pharmacists are most likely to speak English as well as at least a few doctors at a hospital. Many large cities have backpacker's districts where the likelihood of encountering English speakers is greatly increased.

Also, remember kids are more likely to have learned a little bit of English in school than adults. So if you are in a bind, ask a kid if they know an adult who speaks English.

Every place is different, with different access to education and super hero movies (two factors we've noticed seem to play a larger than average role in whether or not English is common). So if you have something you know you need to be able to communicate, severe allergies or medication for diabetes for instance, you may want to do your research before hand as to whether or not you'll be able to communicate these things easily. You may have to find someone before hand to write a note explaining your needs you can hand to a pharmacist. Or, if the need is strong enough and your health is in jeopardy, plan a different vacation.

Feel safe yet? Well, not completely safe... that's all part of the adventure, right?

Breaking down what it means to "get awkward"

When we say "get awkward," we are talking about making people take the time and effort to figure out what the heck you are talking about in their language. Yes, it might be slow, sometimes painful, and often hilarious. But if you don't learn the word or phrase for "stupid westerner" then you won't know they are calling you that, right?

Moving on!

Just because you are visiting a country in which you don't speak the language doesn't mean you can't learn how to speak some of the language.

This is not nearly a daunting a task as you might think.

Getting awkward with our notebooks

Find a small note book, preferably one that can fit in your pocket, and a pen. Now start writing a list of common words separated by situations. The internet is a great tool for this, and many lists like this exist for most major languages. Don't be afraid to write a pronunciation guide next to the word too.

I know what you're thinking: I can just buy a pocket dictionary! That's true, but it won't allow you to research, think about, and write down the words. Trust me, this process is half of learning for a lot of people!

Common situations requiring their own lists include:

Example of one of our lists from Bahasa Indonesia

Don't waste your time writing or learning complete sentences. The moment you open your mouth the person you are talking to is going to know you aren't fluent anyway, and the faster you can get to the point the more likely they are to understand your meaning.

For instance, "Banana... two... please" is waaaaay more likely to get you two bananas than, "Excuse me good sir, could I please, if you don't mind, have two of your nicest bananas for myself and the lady?" Cause here is the thing to keep in mind: you suck at this language. The more you say, the more opportunity you have to screw something up. And because you don't know the rhythm and cadences of the language yet, that person you are talking to is going to have a hard time figuring out what is important in your sentence.

So keep it short and clear.

Every situational category that you add words to in your notebook needs to start with whatever polite things you think you might say.
-Thank you
-Excuse me

Keep putting these at the top so you make sure you really, really remember to say them.

Consideration is key to getting people to help you.

And under "Money," write down how to say your numbers up through however high the currency goes. In Indonesia, we mostly dealt with the ten-thousand range. In Vietnam, we frequently touch one-hundred thousand. Yes, frequently people will drop the "thousand" if it is very common, but you are focusing on being very, very clear, remember?

Let's take one of these situations and write it out, as an example.

-Thank you
-How much?
-Bottled water

And so on. Start by focusing on the things you want and later start adding the things you are unlikely to order (so you know what to avoid).

Notice, we haven't talked about memorizing any of this yet. We are only focused on compiling a list of useful words we can carry around with us.

In the end, once your notebook includes all likely scenarios (keep it small, you aren't going to be picking up ladies at the club right away), you should have, at most, a few hundred words of this foreign language written down.

Chances are you'll have some overlap. Each situation will probably begin with many of the same niceties. Within one section, you might find one word being used over and over again as well (in many languages "hello" is "good morning," "good evening," etc., and often the "good" part of that phrase is always the same).

At this point, you can be done. You can take this booklet with you everywhere you go and use it to help you do nearly everything you are going to want to do while visiting your destination. Yes, communication will be slow and require you looking down and searching your lists a lot, but it can most definitely work.

But what if you want to keep going?

First of all, awesome! You have the time and energy to do something many people never do, so congratulations.

Now you've finished patting yourself on the back, let's focus on what to learn first.

What to learn first

We know what you normally would do if you were traveling to a foreign country, and please believe us when we tell you Duolingo is not going to prepare you. Not in time. It is a great app, and we both use it, but it is best used as a supplement to other learning and not the primary tool. So, really, what do you do first?

First, learn to be polite. Thank you is always first. Please is second. Even if you are still relying heavily on your notebook, starting off with "Please..." to buy time while you scan helps prevent people helping you walking off.

Oh, and if you appear willing to speak the local language, there is a good chance people will start talking to you as though you are fluent. So learning, "I don't understand" early on will come in handy.

Next, learn to count. This can be easy for some languages (Bahasa Indonesia, for instance) and hard for others (English and French come to mind). But numbers will be a large part of all your early conversations in a new language. "I want two." "That'll be 20." You get the idea. Yes, you can and always will use your fingers (try as you might not to), but conveying the number twelve is weirdly hard and understanding how to say it is going to be helpful.

Learn to order what you like. If you don't like shrimp, don't waste time remembering how to say it. That's it.

Learn how to barter. Oh crap, we just lost some of you, didn't we? We get it, bartering is stressful, especially if you didn't grow up bartering. Now we are asking you to do it in a foreign language? All right, slow down, it isn't as hard as you think. You already know your numbers, which is key, cause bartering is always going to be faster than the time it takes you to look at your notebook. And you already know some food, which is a good way to start the bartering ("two bananas"). What you really need here are two short phrases: "How much?" and "Too much!" Social conventions for what to counteroffer are different country by country, so it is best to google that for each place. But the conversation will always end up going:

"Two bananas, please. How much?"
"*deliberate thinking* Hmm... (some number)."
"Too much! (Some amount less than original number)."
"(Some amount less than original number but greater than second number)!"
"Yes, thank you!"

It is important to remember, bartering is a custom or even a game to much of the world, not an active attempt to screw you out of money. And besides, if you end up paying a little more than locals, just think of it as a donation you made to the vendor who probably works twenty hours a day for a lot less money than you make.

Learn directions. This is the last major grouping of brute force memorizing we are suggesting you do. Being able to say, "here," "stop," "right," "left," "straight," and "kilometer," are really going to ensure you don't get driven around by a taxi driver who doesn't know where he or she is. Cause, believe us, that happens. And rarely, if lost, do taxi drivers stop and ask directions (although, in Vietnam we recently had one do just that), but rather they will just drive around until they figure it out.

And that's it. That is really all you need to be able to say in order to get along in a foreign country.

Notice what is not here. We didn't include, "How old are you?' or "What is your name?" or "What is your favorite color?" or "Where is the library?"

When you first pick up a guitar or sit at a piano, no one lectures you about music theory, do they? No, they teach you "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or some other nonsense like that.

Don't worry about the theory, the conjugations, or even the complete sentences. Those things will start to develop naturally if you are having a lot of fun speaking whatever you do know in a language and want to learn more.

In fact, having too much knowledge in the beginning can be a bad thing. There are simply too many words in your head for you to quickly pick out the appropriate one.

It is better to focus on one situation and work on that until you are comfortable. And saying, "chicken, please" is a lot harder than it sounds. You'll want to point. You'll want to say it in English. You'll want to say it quietly in the new language and then louder in English. You'll want to say "chicken" in English and then "please" in the new language.

But eventually, on your tenth try, you'll say clearly and directly "chicken, please" to a waiter and they'll write it down or scurry off and that will be it. And then, after that, you'll always be able to say that phrase with confidence.

Final note: When you are experimenting with speaking a new language and have a first success, it is pretty normal to expect the person you are talking to be impressed. And sometimes they are! But most of the time, if you successfully order at a restaurant, the waiter isn't going to give you a round of applause afterwards.

This is oddly disappointing, especially if the process of getting up the nerve to order was a long and hard road for you. But just remember two important things:

1. You still kinda suck at speaking.
2. But obviously not as much as you used to cause you just ordered at a restaurant and that waiter totally understood everything! Yay!

And that's it!

Thanks for reading our thoughts on how to deal with language barriers in foreign counties!

We'd love to hear about your experiences, both the good and the bad. Please either leave a comment down below or, if you'd like it be a bit more "private," feel free to email us at


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