How to travel to a place when you don’t know the local language

Jean Claude Reuille30-Aug-2020

Travel is a fulfilling and enriching experience. Traveling is an adventure and it is believed that great things never come from comfort zones. The language barrier should not be the reason for keeping you from an astounding travel opportunity. Who does not want to explore and experience the unknown? Travel is exciting but at the same time, it can be nerve-racking if you do not speak the local language of the destination you are heading to.

Not knowing the language is daunting as just the mere thought of not able to communicate in a new place stresses you. We understand that you are always at a risk of getting lost at some new place and especially when you do not know the language, it becomes more difficult and becomes the reason for not traveling abroad.

Here we have compiled some tips for you that will keep your discomfort at bay to some extent:

Learn the Basics

Learning the basics means you do not have to be fluent in the language. If you learn a few keywords, then that will help you to communicate during your travel. It will be evidence of the efforts you are making in front of the locals and will also help you in navigating the new environment. Participating in the local culture is fun as well.

You can always surprise yourself with the foreign vocabulary you will be learning. Some common phrases can be learnt like Good Morning, Hello, How are you?, I am fine, Thank you, You are welcome, Left, Right, Where is the loo?, How much is it? , Numbers from 1-10, Can you help me? , Do you speak English? , Can I have? , Sorry, Excuse Me, Yes, No, I need a doctor, My Name is…, Where is the airport/hotel?

Use hand gestures

Hand gestures are the best solution we can suggest when you are at a loss of words. But every country has some specific gestures that may be offending for the locals as per their culture. So before you arrive at your destination, remember to research about those offensive specific gestures in the host country. For example, the thumbs-up sign signifies approval in many countries but is considered to be rude in Latin America, West Africa, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Use of translation Apps

Another practical solution we can suggest is the use of translation apps. They cannot be termed as perfect but are good for guidance in case of basic words and phrases. So technology can be a saviour to some extent. Some common apps that you can use for your travel are:

  • iTranslate (Available for Apple, Android and Windows Phone)
  • Google Translate (Available for Apple and Android)
  • Papago (Available for Apple and Android)
  • TripLingo (Available for Apple and Android)
  • Speak & Translate (Available for Apple and Android)

There may be issues of mobile coverage at some places so we suggest you have some offline versions of the translation apps. This will ensure that you have full access to the app without connecting to Wi-Fi.


Pointing out may look silly and funny but it is a powerful way of communicating. For example, you can point out the name of the dish you want to order from the menu as it clears any misunderstanding and confusion. Similarly, you can point on maps, on your phone, or at the address, you are finding. The body language is always useful in conveying your meaning across like smiles, nods and shrugs.

Keep the address of the hotel

We advise carrying around the address of the property you are staying in. Take a business card from the hotel or have the address handy in a notebook. Always carry a notepad and a pen.

Be nice and courteous

The ability to not able to communicate can be frustrating at times and you may face this issue lot of times. But when you are nice and courteous, people will be willing to help you and sometimes may go the extra mile to guide you. Speak slowly and clearly as shouting may offend someone unintentionally. Try to keep your communication simple. Avoid using too many words at one time.


Understanding through context clues can help you in some situations. For example-a word placed above an image of man/woman will help you to figure out whether it is the men’s/women’s restroom. There are a few things that you can decipher using educated guesses.

Plan the logistics in advance

Wandering around in an unknown country late at night for a bar or restaurant is not a good idea as you cannot speak the local language. It is unsafe in foreign destinations so it is better you plan important logistics like the hotel, airport transfers, restaurants, etc. before you travel. Book taxis from registered and reputed transportation companies so that you do not get cheated by the driver. Research the companies beforehand.

Use ride-hailing services

The best way to avoid getting cheated is to use the ride-hailing app.  Enter the destination in the app and know the trip amount ahead of time. This way you can save yourself from communicating with the driver.

Take a guided tour

If your budget allows you, opt for a guided tour wherein the guide can speak your language. 

You can choose a group tour as well. If you book through a tour company, they can help you with the guide service.

It will help you to navigate your sightseeing spots at the destination and you will be able to comfortably understand the culture of the place. For small interactions at the shops/restaurants, your translator can translate it to you after interacting with the locals.

Start a conversation

Be confident about asking questions and be clear about what you want. This makes the conversation with others easy and simple. Do not hesitate to initiate the conversation.

Eye Contact

Eye contact is an essential part of body language and an effective way of communication. If you are trying to connect with some local, eye contact and smile will help you to smoothen the communication between you two. When you give full attention to someone, the other person will have a positive feeling and will be willing to assist you.


Listening is the best way to understand other’s accents. If you do not understand in one go, request the other person to repeat. Most of the time, the context of the conversation will help you to find the answer to your question.

Take a short language course

You can enroll yourself in some learning center/academy that offers short-term courses in a foreign language. Many International universities offer free online langue courses through platforms like Coursera, Futurelearn and EdX. Check out on the courses in advance as they are often only provided once/ twice each year.

Purchase a phrasebook

Go the old-fashioned way rather than relying on technology at times. Your mobile may run out of battery but your phrasebook can always help you in understanding the meaning of specific words used by the locals.

Interact with a local travel agent

Interact with a local travel agent who knows your and your destination’s language. This tip can be really useful.

Invest in GPS/Maps

When planning for a vacation, invest in GPS or a map. Check in advance about the places you are planning to visit, whether they have mapping data available for your GPS device.

A good paper map also helps in guiding through new places.


Even if you are using the technology, keep an eye out for the landmarks you are crossing so that you can at least return to your hotel in case you are lost. There are chances of battery getting drained out or losing the paper map.

Observe others

Observing others gives you a learning experience. If you do not know how to behave in certain situations, then see the examples set around by the people around you. If you offend someone unintentionally, then you can politely apologize.

Be flexible and avoid being over sensitive

As you are visiting someone else’s home so you should be flexible enough and adaptive to gel with the locals. There will be times when people may mock at you but at those times, try not to be oversensitive. Do not get offended quickly.

Interact with locals

Interacting with locals can help you a great deal. There is a lot of exchange of information when you interact with the locals. You get to know about their language and common slangs. They can guide you about the place and give useful tips. This will make you comfortable in the new place.

Find an information desk at the airport

All the airports have information desks to assist travelers with their queries. They are mostly conversant in English. You can inquire from them as well.

Take help from the hotel concierge 

What you can do is you can request the hotel concierge to write down the names and addresses of the places in your itinerary in the local language so that you can show it to the taxi driver or some locals while asking questions.

Use camera to record the route

If you cannot read street signs, then you can use the camera of your smartphone to take pictures of signs, buildings, and other landmarks falling on your path so that you can, later on, remember the route through those photos.

In addition to the above tips, you can always ask any stranger for help. Always have a plan of reaching your hotel from the airport. When you reach your destination, you are exhausted and the jetlag may take a toll on you. So you should book a transfer in advance by asking the hotel to arrange at the time of making the reservation. 

There are so many thoughts that could bring a storm of confusion. Do not let anything hold you back. Let go of any fear or shame. We hope after reading these tips, even if you aren’t multilingual, you can travel independently and find comfort in the uncomfortable.

Gear up for a learning experience and pay it back by helping someone who visits your home country. Be kind and friendly towards tourists.

Have a safe and fun holiday!

Written by "Jean Claude Reuille" on 30-Aug-2020

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