Traveling to another country can be intimidating, especially if you don’t speak the language. Below are five Rookie Notes that I’ve learned while living in China and traveling throughout Europe and Northern Africa for how to survive abroad when you don’t speak the language. Cheers to traveling in country like a champ, even if you don’t speak the language.
Rookie Note #1: Normalize Your Fears
It is a sobering experience when you realize that you cannot ask for directions or order a glass of water in your native tongue. However, do not let your limited language skills paralyze you. Remember that you are not the first and will not be the last person on Earth to be in a country where you do not understand the language. Everyday thousands of people wander through marketplaces, see Wonders of the World, and check off activities on their itineraries in countries where they do not understand what is being spoken. If they can survive, so will you.
Rookie Note #2: There is Strength in Numbers
Unless you are traveling off the beaten path, you are bound to run into other people that also speak English. Yes, you may serendipitously run into a fellow native speaker at a bus stop as you are waiting to visit a tourist attraction, but you will have better luck at hostels.
Hostels are a great way to meet other travelers that speak the same language. In many hostels there are “common spaces” where guests congregate. In these spaces, you can find travel buddies that will be willing to explore your new country with you. Also, at many hostels, tours are offered which provide you with the opportunity to see the sights and get around town with the assistance of a guide.
Rookie Note # 3: Write it Down
Worried about telling your taxi driver how to get to your hostel? Don’t remember how to find the marketplace?
Write it down.
As you are booking your lodging and Googling all the sites you would like to visit, write them down in English and its translation. For example, if you want to visit the Great Wall of China, type “Great Wall of China in Chinese Characters” in your search engine and print it out. Also, when you arrive at the airport or check into your accommodation, more than likely, there will be people willing to translate your destination of choice for you. Do not be afraid to ask.
If you’re taking the bus, before you leave your lodging, take a picture near to your hotel/hostel. When boarding the bus, show the driver the stop you need to get off at and they will more than likely let you know when you’ve reached your destination.
Rookie Note #4: There’s An App For That
There are multiple apps that you can download that will help you translate what you want to say. Simply record your message, choose your target language, and hit submit; your message will be translated for the other person to hear.
Rookie Note #5: Learn Key Phrases
Do you speak English? Where is the bathroom? How much? I’m lost, can you help me? Learning key phrases can help you tremendously as you are traveling. Even though you won’t have deep, meaningful conversations, you will not only get your basic necessities met, but the locals will see that you’re trying, appreciate your willingness to learn about their culture and language, and in turn will be more inclined to help you.
Some of my best travel moments happened when I explored countries where I didn’t speak the language. It challenged me, helped me grow, and left me with memories to last a life time. I encourage all you to travel to places where you don’t speak the language. You will survive.