How to Overcome a Language Barrier

man, woman, travel, dunheger travel blog


There is little more disconcerting than finding yourself plopped in the middle of an unfamiliar city where you don’t speak a lick of the local language. Being surrounded by the sounds of a foreign tongue can be exhilarating, but when you need to find your hotel, order something to eat, figure out which train is yours, or replace a lost bottle of shampoo, that language barrier can also be overwhelming. Follow these tips to communicate with the locals.

Memorize some basic words

Yes, English is widely spoken in many countries, particularly by those in the hospitality and tourism industry. That’s no excuse for you not to try and speak a little of the local language. Use your flight time to study up on a few basic words and phrases. At the very least, you should know how to say ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you.’ Knowing how to ask if someone speaks English or call for help is also useful.


If you encounter someone who doesn’t speak good English, there’s no point in getting angry with them. They probably want to understand you (and be understood themselves) just as much as you do. Keep a level head and a positive attitude when you’re trying to navigate a language barrier. Being polite and keeping a smile on your face while you try to communicate will make the process infinitely more bearable for you both.

Use body language

Use your hands. Make wild facial expressions. Use your whole body if you have to. Body language is a great way to make your point clear. If you need a new bottle of shampoo, and don’t know the word for shampoo, mime washing your hair. Trying to ask the time? Point to your wrist like you’re checking a watch. You might feel silly, but silliness is pretty critical to successful travels.

Use an app

If gestures aren’t getting you anywhere, you may need to look up the actual word you’re trying to parse out. Google Translate is a popular go-to with nearly any language you could need at your fingertips. For more extensive translation needs, use Whym to contact a live interpreter.

Get the Point It dictionary

If you’re traveling to more than one country, there’s no need to weigh your bag down with multiple phrasebooks. The Point It dictionary is a pocket sized volume jam packed with pictures of almost anything you might need to reference on the road. When confronted with a language barrier, just open up your Point It and show your conversation partner a photo of what you mean.

Find a common language

Say you’re in Beziers, France. You don’t speak French. Locals don’t speak English. But Beziers is so close to the Pyrenees, many locals do speak some Spanish, and you took three years of Spanish in school. While neither of you may be fluent, you’ll probably have enough common ground to work with. When traveling, keep an ear out for second languages.

Ask for help

If all else fails, find someone who can translate for you. The staff at your hotel or hostel may be able to call the airport for you to recover something you left on the plane. A passing tourist may have studied Italian in college and know enough to help you. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

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