3 Tips for Traveling Where You Don't Know the Language

By Gwendolyn Shearman, Staff WriterOct. 7, 2014
By Gwendolyn Shearman, Staff WriterOct. 7, 2014, at 12:19 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

3 Tips for Traveling Where You Don't Know the Language

The Office of Travel and Tourism estimates that in 2013, more than 29 million Americans traveled overseas, primarily to countries where English isn't the first language. Although many tourists can get by with English alone, a big part of cultural immersion is being able to understand and communicate in the native tongue. You don't need to become fluent, but picking up a few key phrases will help you make most of your travels abroad (and keep you safe, too). Heed these suggestions and you'll be on your way to communicating with locals in no time.

Picking up the language after you've already arrived will likely be overwhelming, so make time before your departure to tackle some language basics. Instead of focusing on learning proper grammar rules, as you might in a foreign language class, try to learn commonly used words and phrases to help you interact with native speakers.

Learn standard greetings, such as "hello" and "goodbye," as well as "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry" and "excuse me." Other useful phrases include "please speak slowly" and "I don't know." Knowing how to ask certain questions like "Do you speak English?" or "How much does this cost?" will also save you a lot of time.

And as a safety precaution, learn how to say a few distress phrases. Even if you don't end up using them, you'll feel more at ease having words like "help," "emergency" and "police" in your arsenal.

Don't try to cram useless vocabulary, either. Instead, search for lists of the most commonly used words in a particular language and commit yourself to learning those. It's a lot easier to memorize 100 words than 1,000.

Remember, you're not alone: 53 percent of tourists learn useful words and phrases before their trip in order to better interact with locals, according to a 2014 Priceline report. You can also use websites like Meetup.com to find speakers and fellow language students to practice speaking with before you go. Also, check out cultural events in your community to see if any native speakers might be there.

More than 60 percent of tourists already use their phones for directions and finding restaurants and local stores, but only about 30 percent use it to translate foreign languages, according to Priceline. Using your phone as a translation tool means you can ditch the phrasebook.  

If you've ever needed to translate a website, you've likely used Google Translate. And you're in good company: Each month, more than 200 million people worldwide use Google Translate, both on their phones and on the Web. The service uses statistical machine translation to scan documents in 80 different languages and decipher what the appropriate translations should be. While it's one of the most popular translation apps, keep in mind that it does require an Internet connection.

For navigating foreign streets, public transportation or even restaurant menus, Word Lens allows users to take pictures of signage and other printed words with their phone's camera and see translations in real time. The free app currently translates six languages into English, and doesn't require an Internet connection. But it does have one caveat: The app doesn't recognize handwriting.

Another popular, free app that doesn't require data usage, Translate Professional includes more than 300 phrases for each of the more than 50 languages it translates. The app has multiple features, including a text translation function, as well as voices for 18 languages that are available for purchase.

According to Priceline, 69 percent of locals enjoy it when tourists are curious and excited about their city, and trying to speak the language is one way to illustrate your enthusiasm. Knowing commonly used phrases and how to ask questions can facilitate conversation and lead you to local restaurants and shops for a more authentic experience. It's OK if you mispronounce some words; showing a respectful attempt is always appreciated.

Write down key information, such as your hotel address or phone number, in the language so a native speaker can help guide you if necessary. If all else fails, use hand gestures and body language — just make sure to research etiquette in the country to avoid offending anyone. For example, in Greece, putting up an open palm (what Americans think of as a high-five gesture) is the equivalent of flipping someone the bird.

Luckily, plenty of destinations around the world learn English as a second language. So, if you get completely stuck, someone — including your hotel concierge — likely speaks English.

About the author: Gwen Shearman is an intern for the Travel section at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at gshearman@usnews.com

Gwendolyn Shearman, Staff Writer

Gwen Shearman is an Editor/Digital Producer for the Travel section at U.S. News where she ...  Read more

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