Language can be a big barrier when traveling to other countries: getting around, interacting with locals or even just ordering food. We have listed a few basic things you can do in order to help you master communication anywhere:
Showing that you know a few words in the local language will without a doubt help you communicate better, but will also enable you to make friends and produce some smiles among the passerby. However, there is a handful of words that will take you much farther than learning whole sentences if you are not able to maintain a full conversation in a new language. Here’s our proven selection:
If you have food allergies you might also want to learn how to say:
In order to show respect to the locals and also to minimize the risk of being cheated, we find it a must learning the following sentences in the local language:
To bargain like a pro, you’ll need to know your numbers. At the very least you should learn how to pronounce and read from 1 to 9.
Past that, in most languages for the tens, hundreds and thousands you’ll just need to add a word or two after the single digits. And generally speaking, you probably won’t need to know more than 100 — unless of course you travel to a country where the currency’s value is so low that prices are given in thousands or even millions! This adds a certain degree of difficulty, but still doable.
Hand and body gestures
Hand signs and body language will also help you greatly to get understood abroad. However, it’s important to identify the gestures used locally. Here are some examples:
In China, you probably can get away without knowing how to pronounce the numbers in Chinese simply by learning the popular and easy hand signs used for each number, plus it only requires you to use one hand:
In some Arab countries, hand gesture is almost an art. And the two main signs that you will come across repeatedly are:
In former USSR Central Asian countries, you’ll be often invited to drink Vodka with the locals. When they see that you don’t understand a word, they’ll probably use the following sign to convey their message:
In Japan, when people that don’t speak English want to express a negative to you, they will very likely do this:
In India, the gesture of nodding while conversing is not done up and down but rather from side to side, more like a gentle but continuous head shake. So what might look like a “no” in the West, in India it’s actually a “yes” that conveys respect and attention to the speaker. We really like this following video deciphering the different head shakes used in India.
Be very careful though, the head shake is highly contagious and you’ll probably continue to do it for weeks after coming back from your trip, making people around you utterly confused!
In Italy, the land of the talking hands, probably the most iconic and affable gesture is the one that denotes joy and satisfaction, after a tasty meal or pretty much after anything that you liked:
In many Asian countries, the hand gesture for eating is subtly but profoundly different than in most Western countries. When giving you the queue to go eat, instead of using your fingers to mimic that you take a piece of food to your mouth, in places like China, Japan and Korea they will emulate eating noodles from a cup just like this:
It’s important to be aware of offensive hand gestures wherever you travel to. What might mean something good in your culture, could have the exact opposite meaning somewhere else. Our best advise would be to observe and learn before you start throwing hand signs left and right.
When traveling to countries where their language shares your same alphabet, things are usually not so bad. Because although you might not understand most of it, you can still try to read and pronounce their words. The big challenge is when arriving to countries where they use a complete different set of letters, or characters for that matter. Except for some Asian languages where there is not a concise alphabet of characters, most languages still use a set of 20-30 letters that form the base of all the words used in the language. Learning those when going to a country or area where they use them, although not always easy, can prove really helpful.
As a last note, we would like to recommend taking a language guide book or mobile app with you on your travels. Because if you cannot pronounce the right way what you want to say, you can always show the word or sentence to the person you are trying to speak to and let them read it. Personally, we like very much and continue to use the Lonely Planet phrase books. They are perfectly portable because of their small size, yet feature tones of useful words and sentences beautifully organized, along with interesting facts about the language covered.
Of course you can always resource to Google Translate and let it do all the translation (and even the reading) work for you, although in our experience it’s a bit of a hit and miss, for now. Although it will certainly provide some very amusing situations with the locals during your travels 😉