Mastering the Art of Travelling Monolingually

You want to visit a new country, but you don’t speak the language? It may take twice as long to pick up groceries or make local friends, but here are some easy tricks to make the language barrier a fun hurdle rather than a frightening one.

Understand Hand Gestures

If you don’t know the language, heighten your other senses. Attune yourself to body language, physical environments, voice, and touch. It is important to research the subtle differences in cultural gestures, postures, eye movements, and so on. While these may seem universal, they are not. The Vietnamese have a different signifier for ‘come here’ than Europeans. Some hand gestures are offensive depending on where you go. In Western cultures, the ‘OK’ symbol you make with your thumb and forefinger is a threat in Arab countries.

Communicate Non-verbally

Nonverbal communication when traveling is much more important than the explicit meaning of words. It can be exhausting to try and interpret the language that you simply do not know. Sometimes, you are better off to just stop thinking about it. You will most likely find you can gain a better understanding of what someone means by watching their non-verbal messages.

Learn Basic Phrases

This is not to say that language won’t be helpful. I would recommend learning at least ten basic phrases – ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘do you speak English?’, ‘where is…?’, ‘help!’, ‘how much is…?’, ‘have a good day’, ‘I’m sorry’/’excuse me’. In acknowledging you are sorry you don’t know their language, but are still making an effort, you show respect, which I think is absolutely necessary when visiting a new place.

Smile!Mind your manners and keep a smile on your face. Unless it is not customary to smile at strangers, a smile will show confidence. People are more attracted to others if they have a smile on their faces, so if you need help, make sure you are gracious and smile at the person who helps.

Practice parlour games
Playing charades goes a long way. Playing Pictionary does too. I think carrying a notepad and pen is very helpful if you have any skill in drawing, even stick-figures will work. The person helping you can also draw on your map.

Download an App

Use a translator app – don’t stick your microphone in someone’s face, but instead use an app that detects text and translates it directly on your screen. It will translate a menu, a road sign, a plaque with information. Also, use your smartphone to take pictures of the transit system maps, of intersections, buildings that will help someone point you in the right direction if you get lost.

Plan Ahead

I think the most valuable way to get by is to plan your day in advance, and ask the hotel concierge to write down all of the location names and addresses on a piece of paper so that you may show them to a taxi driver or a local. And absolutely carry your hotel’s business card to show to someone on the street or a driver who can take you back.

Make Friends

Lastly, ask the right people for help, and make friends by finding people who want to practice their English with you.

Images courtesy of KayugeeBarbara W, Marcus SpiskeHenrie Tsai, Neville Nel, SozalHeldenHe Told Me.