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Last Updated on 23/12/2020

One of the biggest challenges facing solo travel is learning to overcome language barriers. Navigating a foreign country with little knowledge of how to speak the lingo feels akin to communicating underwater. 

At least with a travelling companion, you have two of you to muddle along with but when you’re travelling alone, it’s up to you only. As the chief communicator on your trip, it can be hard to ignore the fear of possible isolation and confusion. 

However, dealing with foreign languages doesn’t have to be a challenge. If you’re willing to work a little bit harder, travelling solo in a country with a language different to your own can be a gift that just keeps giving. 

You realise that you’re actually a lot more capable than you think and learn that communication goes beyond knowing the words themselves. While overcoming language barriers, you gain invaluable new life skills in communication and problem-solving, and you get to know the country on a much deeper level. 

So, if you want to tackle communication barriers like a pro while travelling, check out these helpful tips. And remember, you don’t need to learn a foreign language or be fluent in it to gain confidence in communicating. You just need a little determination, a dash of imagination and a willingness to learn. 

Learn a few common words and phrases before you travel 

overcome language barriers - france

Practising a few key words and phrases in the months leading up to your trip can make 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 not only shows that you have a respect and interest in the country but it will also make life a lot easier. Trust me, it will only work out 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 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, overcome language barriers and make you more confident about socialising while travelling. 

Some handy words and phrases to learn: 

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • My name is…
  • What is your name? 
  • How are you? 
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Yes
  • No 

Spend time with the locals 

carcassonne in france

The best way to get familiar with foreign languages while travelling solo is to spend time with the locals. Take your interactions as an opportunity to learn a new word or phrase to add to your repertoire during your trip. 

People are more than willing to share what they know, and you can exchange it for a language lesson of your own. Hanging out with the locals is a fun way to understand more about the culture and you can pick up idioms and expressions that you may not have discovered in a phrasebook or online. 

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 a good idea to double-check any significant gestures before you travel. You never know if a harmless gesture in your own culture is deeply offensive in another. In the interest of bridging cultural barriers and avoiding awkward situations as you attempt an ad hoc game of charades, it counts to be on the safe side. 

Practice visual communication

overcome language barriers - france

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 when trying to overcome language barriers. 

Personally, I always have a notepad and pen with me when I’m abroad. You never know when the time might call for a detail to be written down or an international game of Pictionary to commence. 

I’ve started making a conscious effort to avoid relying on my phone while travelling. I tend to end up using it for just about everything from translation to directions and photography. 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 everywhere with me 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 an unfamiliar language is that you won’t be able to communicate effectively in an emergency. 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. 

Get to know body language 

girl in carcasonne

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 too 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 93% 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 overcome language barriers a lot better than you think. 

Trust yourself and your abilities and you will find the experience hugely rewarding when you achieve that breakthrough. 

Use language apps and good old faithful Google translate

overcome language barriers

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. 

Before an upcoming trip to France, I used Duolingo to learn a few French phrases. It relies on commitment to be effective but you can study your way through the basics until you can string a few sentences together in most topics. It can take as little as 5 minutes a day and 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 keeps crashing every time you try to open it on the road.

Pro tip: If you’re really struggling with language problems, you can type what you want to say in Google Translate and get it to speak in the language you need. That way, it can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. 

Study the culture

overcome language barriers

Languages are best learned in context. Before your trip, try to familiarise yourself with the culture by watching films, listening to podcasts and reading books. If novels are a little too advanced you can try children’s picture books. At the very least you’ll have some conversation starters if you find yourself invited to dinner – perhaps don’t bring up the children’s books though. 

Another good way to bridge language barriers and familiarise yourself with current affairs is to read the country’s news sites. Most stories will contain images and video clips so you can start to pick up on what’s going on even if you don’t get most of the words. 

Acting confident is the secret to overcoming language barriers

side of carcasonne in france

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. All you need to do is walk with a purpose, smile, nod and say hello and it will make you come across as friendly and assertive. Most importantly, it will make you seem like you’re in control. 

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 completely overcome language barriers to be confident. Having even the tiniest grasp of it will also give you a huge advantage over your surroundings. Navigating through your trip will be more successful and you will feel less like you’re stumbling around underwater. 

Learning to communicate in a foreign language is rewarding

overcome language barriers

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 widely spoken all over the world. I think this concept is 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 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 common ground with someone no matter where you go. Learning to overcome language barriers and build those connections will make you feel a lot more confident as a solo traveller. 

I hope you find these tips for dealing with language barriers useful. It would mean a lot if you could pin or share it and if you have any questions about solo travel you can email me francesca@littlelosttravel.com