Worried about catching a train in Russia or finding your hotel in China? Language barriers shouldn’t stop you from exploring your dream travel destinations. All you need is a little planning and some simple tools.
1. Make the most of technology
These days there’s an app for just about anything, and travel is no exception. Apps like Google Translate for iPhone allow you to speak a word or phrase into your phone and see an instant translation. The service is free and available in 15 different languages, but you will need a 3G or wi-fi connection to utilize it. If you don’t want to rack up data charges with every use, you could instead download traditional phrasebooks – such as Lonely Planet’s popular series – that work even when you’re offline.
2. A picture is worth a thousand words
If you prefer to travel with more old-fashioned technology, there is a pocket-sized picture book that will help you survive almost any travel situation. Point It: The Traveler’s Language Kit has hundreds of photos of everything from “toothbrush” to “snow chains”. The book allows you to avoid carrying numerous phrasebooks if you’re taking a multi-country trip.
3. Get someone to write it down
If anyone is likely to speak English, it’s someone in the tourism industry. Make the most of this by asking hotel staff to write down your sightseeing destination in the local language. You can then show the slip of paper to a taxi driver, train ticket seller and so on, who can get you there without much need for words. Make sure you pick up your hotel’s business card so you can easily get back. This trick can be especially useful in countries where the alphabet is not Latin-based, since reading or recognizing a sign in, say Chinese, is likely to be tough, especially if you’re already disoriented or jet-lagged. Making matters worse, some streets in China have one name in English but a completely different-sounding name in Chinese! Having it down on paper can avoid any confusion.
4. Keep it simple
People in most parts of the world speak or understand at least some English, but are often overwhelmed by tourists who use complex words or sentences in rapid fire. Keep your dialogue slow, clear and simple. If you aren’t understood, remember that raising your voice or repeating the same thing over and over won’t do much to get your point across. Instead, try phrasing your question or statement in a new way, using words that are universally understood rather than slang from your home country. For example, in many places “toilet” is more likely to be understood than “restroom” or “loo”. Likewise, “taxi” will get you further than “cab”.
5. Learn at least a few words
Don’t underestimate the power of a simple “please” or “thank you” in the local language. Even if foreign languages aren’t your thing, taking the time to memorize a few words pays off when the locals realize you’ve made an effort. People will often go out of their way to help you – or find someone else who can – if they believe you are genuinely interested in getting to know their culture and country.
6. Plan before you go
Travel is all about opening yourself up to new experiences, but there are some things you’ll want to avoid at all costs. If you have special needs, a medical condition or food allergies, make sure you know the foreign words for them and be clear that you have an allergy, not simply an aversion. It also helps to be specific: “vegetarian” might mean completely avoiding all meat, poultry and seafood to you, but in some countries, fish, eggs and even white meat are considered vegetarian.