One of the biggest challenges facing solo travel is the language barrier. The idea of navigating a foreign country with little knowledge of how to speak the lingo feels akin to communicating underwater.
You’re completely adrift without a travelling companion to muddle along with. By default you are chief communicator so it’s hard to ignore the fear of possible isolation and confusion on your trip.
But it doesn’t have to be the case. As long as you’re willing to work a little harder to overcome the language barrier, solo travel in a country with a language different to your own is a gift that just keeps giving.
Before you know it you learn to find your own way to communicate across the divide, and you discover that it’s not actually as hard as you think. You gain new life skills in communication and problem-solving, and get to know the country on a deeper level.
So if you want to communicate like a pro in countries that have a different language to your own, here are a few helpful tips to consider. Above all, you don’t need to be fluent or have more than ten words to your repertoire to be confident at communicating. You just need a little determination, imagination, and a willingness to learn.
1. Learn a few common words and phrases before you travel
Practising a few key words and phrases in the months leading up to your trip makes the world of difference to your confidence. You don’t have to be fluent or know a great deal of the language but if you have a few basics to offer it shows that you have a respect and an interest in the country. Trust me, it will only work in your favour.
Even if you can only manage a few stumbling words or if you feel awkward about your pronunciation, making an effort to communicate in their language will brighten a person’s day and they will be more willing to help you out.
You don’t need to be able to speak whole sentences to make a difference. Simply learning a few basic and universally polite words such as ‘yes’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’ will suffice in giving you a strong first impression even if you can’t manage much more than that. Having the basics will help ease your interactions and will make you more confident about socialising while travelling.
In fact, make use of your meetings with the locals. Take your interactions as an opportunity to learn a new word or phrase to add to your repertoire for your trip. People are more than willing to share what they know, and you can exchange it for a language lesson of your own.
Sometimes, of course, the language barrier can be too great for more than just a smile and a wave. If in doubt adding a few gestures to your communication is a useful tactic to muddle through the confusion. It might be worthwhile double checking any significant gestures before you travel.
You never know if a harmless gesture in your own country is deeply offensive in another. In the interest of avoiding that awkward situation as you muddle your way through an ad hoc game of charades it counts to be on the safe side.
2. Practice visual communication
More often than not you won’t have the vocabulary to communicate everything you’re trying to say. This is where visual aids like a notepad and pen and a few pictures on your phone can become your best friends.
Personally, I always have a notepad and pen with me when I’m travelling. You never know when the time might call for a detail to be written down or an international game of pictionary to come about.
I’ve started making a conscious effort to avoid relying on my phone so much while travelling. I tend to end up using it for just about everything from translation to directions and camera, and I’ve come close to running out of battery (even with a portable charger) more times than I would like. So, I’ve started taking a notepad with me everywhere because it’s always good to have a backup just in case something happens to your phone or you run out of data.
Whatever your preferred style, don’t underestimate the power of a picture as a visual aid. They may even save your life if you have severe allergies or a medical condition to be made aware of.
One of the biggest concerns about travelling solo in a country with a language different to your own is that you won’t be able to communicate effectively in an emergency. So, take a selection of visual aids with you if they help you feel more confident about travelling solo, particularly if they benefit your health. At least then if words fail you have something to fall back on.
An essential part of communication is in fact nonverbal. Our understanding of communication isn’t just derived from a string of words thrown together in a sentence, unless you’re writing a text or email.
In these cases, meaning can become ambiguous to the reader which is why we sometimes add emoticons to communicate how we want the tone of our sentences to be perceived. How many times have you written an email and worried that it might come across a little to abrupt, or could be taken the wrong way?
The majority of meaning behind the language we speak is nonverbal. In fact, according to a formula devised by the psychologist Dr Mehrabian, it makes up a staggering ninety-three percent of communication.
From body language to facial expressions, tone and proximity, you don’t need to have an understanding of what’s being spoken to get a gist of what’s being communicated to you.
By observing the nonverbal indicators in your interactions perhaps more than the words themselves, you will be able to bridge the language barrier on your trip a lot more than you think. Trust yourself and your abilities and you will find the experience hugely rewarding when you achieve that breakthrough.
3. Use language apps and good old faithful Google translate
A phrasebook is a crucial addition to any solo traveller’s packing list if they wish to visit a country with a foreign language. But these days, you don’t need to add the extra bulk to your luggage (although it is useful to have a backup just in case) when you have a whole host of translation apps at your disposal.
From outright learning the language to simply translating the odd word for a menu, there’s an app for every level of interaction. Of course, some apps are more accurate than others. Google translate is notorious for not getting the nuances of the language quite right so it pays to have a selection.
Wanting something a little more than a phrasebook, I’ve recently downloaded Duolingo for my upcoming trip to Greece. It relies on commitment to be effective but from as little as five minutes a day you can study your way through the language basics to stringing sentences together in any topic. The best part is the app is completely free to use.
If you don’t have time to set about learning a whole new language then alternative apps like Triplingo or Bravolol can be useful to help you with a few key phrases. Play around with different foreign language apps before you go to familiarise yourself with them.
Make sure you’re happy with what you choose so you can be confident that they will be useful on your trip. You don’t want the added stress of an app that keep crashing every time you try to open it on the road.
4. Act confident
The easiest way to feel confident in yourself while travelling solo is to act it. Even if you’re in a country where you don’t know the language or you feel a little bit out of your depth simply walk with a purpose, smile, nod and say hello and it will make you come across as friendly and assertive.
For travellers, there’s always the fear that you may be targeted by thieves or scammers for sticking out like a sore thumb. The key is to look like you know what you’re doing even if you don’t. If you practice confidence and demonstrate that you know at least a little of the language then the rest will follow.
It’s a myth that you have to know the language to be confident. Having even the tiniest grasp of it will also give you a huge advantage and control over your surroundings. Navigating through your trip will be more successful and you will feel less like you’re stumbling around underwater.
Language barriers are tough and many people are put off from visiting a country because of them. Don’t let them intimidate you. Yes, losing the ability to understand the language with ease can be an alarming prospect. But the most important attitude to have while visiting a country with a language barrier is an open mind.
It’s okay to not be perfect in your pronunciations or if you err on the side of basic rather than fluent. Making an effort, no matter how small, is what counts.
It’s easy to only choose countries that share your native tongue. Being a native English speaker is both a blessing and a curse. I’ve found that there’s almost an expectation that you will be able to speak English wherever you go as it’s so widely spoken, at least as a second language. I find such a concept to be so lazy. We don’t tend to value other languages as highly as we should.
Travelling is a far more rewarding experience when you have the opportunity to dig deep into the language and culture. It takes a little more extra planning but if you express a willingness to engage you will be surprised at how much you can communicate. You can nearly always find a common ground in which to connect with someone and you will feel a lot more confident as a solo traveller.
Thanks for reading,