How to Travel Without Knowing the Local Language

Originally published Jun 21, 2017 at Rakbo.com.

Let me paint you a picture: you decide after careful consideration or (if you were like me) after reckless abandon, to study abroad. You are so excited to have an adventure, to build upon your resume, to take some classes and to try some amazing new food! But you aren’t like the other kids – oh no! You decide to study abroad where English is not the common language. The country is across the globe, you don’t know anyone on the other side and you will be alone when you get there.

I’ve been there. I decided to study abroad in China after very little research. Most countries I’ve been to, I had no grasp on the local language! I’ve learned lots of tricks to cope with the language barriers and you can too! You’ll be fiiiiine. Here’s how to do it:

MEMORIZE KEY SURVIVAL PHRASES.

Let me clarify. To cope with language barriers in some countries, you will need to learn a few key phrases to survive. However, the emergency Mandarin that I picked up in Beijing was basically me repeating memorized sounds. I had no grasp on how to read or write in China, and I knew about thirty words total. My language skills were a speck of dust in the vast, complex universe that is Mandarin; I merely put some sounds together and most people could figure out what I meant. In my opinion, this is not learning the language.

That being said, there are a few phrases everyone should know for every local language. Take a page from Dev’s book from the latest season of Master of None, and memorize, “Sorry I don’t speak Italian (or whatever language) very well!” Greetings are of course very important, but a few other useful phrases are: “Where is the bathroom?”, “I’m lost!”, “How much is this?” and “I’d like one of these, please.” Google translate can help you a bit here, but I would advise downloading an app like Duolingo for even better translations!

UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE.

You will undoubtedly pick this up as you travel in your country, but understanding the customs of your area will help you immensely. For example, in China, to clean your plate would indicate that you want more food, even if you just finished eating all your food to be polite. Chinese people will insist on feeding you more. In parts of Africa and the Caribbean, people have a relaxed attitude towards time, and therefore locals are often late in the eyes of a Westerner. In Latin America and the Middle East, the thumbs up sign that in English-speaking areas of the world means “Okay!” or “Awesome!” means, to them, “Up yours!” Learning these unique ticks will help your communications be more effective and, at the very least, keep your mistakes to more reasonable levels.

BODY LANGUAGE

This is really the universal language. Across nearly all cultures, a laugh represents joy. A sneer shows disdain. A body slumped over shows exhaustion or apathy. Try to embrace your body language and emphasize it while speaking with locals. They might not know exactly what you are saying, but if they see you swinging your arms and grinning, it must mean something good!

A SMILE WILL GET YOU FAR.

When I lived in Beijing, I would get a freshly cut mango on a stick every morning while walking to work. The first time I asked for my meal, I stumbled over my words and resorted to pointing at a mango and then pointing at my purse. The man understood me and I paid him for my breakfast. After this became a habit, my fruit cart man would see me walking by and just start peeling my mango for me once he saw me nod and smile. I used this tactic for nearly everything I bought or ate while abroad.

I will say, it gets trickier when you want a small amount of something. On one occasion, I wanted to buy some strawberries, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to say carton, pint, box or anything similar. I told the lady I’d “like 17 strawberries” because I thought that was about how many I wanted. She laughed and handed me the bag to pick my fruit from the pile. Whatever works!

FALL BACK ON ENGLISH.

If you are reading this blog post with no difficulties, you are already very prepared to travel. Luckily for native English speakers like myself, most countries of the world are able to default to my mother tongue. English is becoming a more universal language, no matter where in the world you happen to be. If you are struggling with speaking the local language, it is likely that people will give up and start speaking to you in English, whether you wanted to practice the language or not. I am traveling to France this summer and I am determined to put my five years of French lessons to use, yet I know some people just won’t give me the chance. C’est la vie!

Let me know if these tricks have helped you while traveling! Comment below or find me on Instagram at @emalicethomas.

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