One of our favorite pictures from the boat tour in Jinze Water Town with the family and our tour guide

5 Tips For Traveling In Non-English Speaking Foreign Countries

One of the biggest fears that prevents people from traveling is the fear of not being able to communicate. Visiting a country where English is not widely spoken can definitely be nerve-wracking: How will you find your way? How will you purchase tickets or order a meal? So many “what ifs” may run through your mind, but having visited numerous countries where we couldn’t speak the language, we discovered it’s much easier than you think.

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Visiting a non-English speaking country was scary for us, as well. Visiting places in South America, Spain, China — the language barrier was huge! Sure, it’s much easier to visit London or Paris, where English is generally spoken, but you’ll be missing unique cultures and a chance to feel a sense of adventure. Don’t let language stop you from traveling. There are five ways to make communication easier:

  1. Use translators. Technology has made it so much easier than before to travel and communicate. You’ll find translation apps readily available for your phone, including Google Translate, iTranslate and TripLingo. First, download the apps, which you can use if you have WiFi. Also, download the offline dictionaries so you can scan menus and items in supermarkets and pharmacies plus use the app without wifi. You can also use them to speak your language into the app, and it will translate into the language of the foreign country you are visiting, allowing you to “talk” to someone.
  2. Learn basic words and phrases. Whenever you visit a foreign country, learn the words for “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” “please,” “excuse me,” “where is,” “how much is this,” “I don’t understand,” “can you repeat that,” “do you speak English,” “yes” and “no,” and numbers 1 through 20. These will be your most common words, and when you attempt to speak a native language, you’ll find the people are very welcoming and willing to help. Don’t worry about getting words wrong; they will be happy you are trying.
  3. Download maps. Having maps available offline on your phone will make it easier for you to navigate a foreign city. Having a good data plan is also helpful in a pinch, when you can turn on your navigation.
  4. Book English-speaking tours. We always recommend taking a walking tour during your first day in a new destination. They are fantastic for getting acclimated with a place, and your guide can provide useful information to help you feel more at ease.
  5. Hand gestures work. It seems primitive, but hand gestures, pointing and “charades” are how people have communicated for centuries before a common language was formed. It still works, as we have discovered when in a jam and needing help in places in South America and rural areas of Spain — our waitress explained that something on the menu was “pig cheeks” with oinks and touching her cheeks! Attempting to communicate through charades, gestures and pointing, and then finding out it worked is something we actually enjoyed. It’s such a sense of accomplishment to navigate in foreign waters.

You can do this! It will be a little uncomfortable at first, but once you realize how willing people are to attempt to communicate, you’ll gain the confidence you need and continue on!

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Johnny McCarron
Johnny McCarron
4 years ago

I really appreciate your tip for booking English-speaking tours. Personally, I’m thinking of visiting Ethiopia and other areas of Africa. I’d definitely want to have a tour guide, though.