Traveling to a foreign country can pose challenges when visiting a place where they don’t speak your native tongue. For example, how do you ask where the bathroom is? Where can you find a taxi? When does the local marketplace open? These can be reasonably easy to know or can become a huge stressor when you travel to a foreign company if you don’t know the local language.


At the very minimum, you can memorize some key phrases. A lot can be accomplished with pantomiming what you want though hand gestures, smiling and other facial expressions. There is a limit when you have to explain something complicated (or too specific or out of the norm). You will know you hit the wall when you stand there staring at each other and it goes nowhere for a few minutes. I have found that frequently in this situation they will find some young person who knows a little English to help out. If you try to speak the language, people want to help you out!


Learn the Basics of Your New Language for Travel


Learning a new language can be daunting. However, you can use many online tools, including DuolingoPimsleur, and Babbel, which can put the new language you want to learn right at your fingertips! Taking 15 to 30 minutes a day to learn your new language will be a good investment of your time. You’ll also want to grab a paper copy of a language book if you don’t have a good internet or phone connection in the country you’re traveling.


Duolingo is good for regular practice that gives you a wide base of understanding of a language. Pimsleur is better for improving conversationally. Pimsleur might be better for you to crash study before a new country to practice hearing the language in a situational way that will happen to you. Other tools you might find helpful are Anki and iTalki. Anki is a flash card method for studying that works great. You download card sets and do one set at a time. You don’t move on to a new set until you have reached a level of proficiency on that set. iTalki is an online forum that matches students with teachers. This one is paid but very cheap ($5-10 for a 30-60 minute lesson). You go online on a video chat and can speak the language with a native speaker in real time. This is helpful for hearing the language. You can have an instructor role play being in a restaurant, talking to a taxi driver or hotel clerk. Knowing what to say at the airport is an important one!


Even though learning a new language can be challenging, the best piece about learning a foreign language is when you learn a foreign language, you have to put yourself in the mind of a person who speaks that language. Learning a new language forces you to understand a different culture and way of thinking. When you’re learning your new language, think of how understanding you are of a foreigner in your country trying to speak English. 


When you learn a new language and speak it to the locals, they get excited! I’ve been to over 30 countries, and the people there were thrilled when I tried to speak their language. There’s been only one exception to this rule – mainland China. The reason is that it’s hard to pronounce Mandarin! One time I was in Shanghai on business and we spent 45 minutes trying to get me to pronounce one phrase in Mandarin. It went like this: They say it, I try to copy it and they say “No that isn’t correct.” Over and over. We gave up and went to google translate.


However, when you have eight to ten common phrases memorized, knowing the phrase “I’m a new speaker” when you meet someone new goes a long way. They almost always laugh and tell you how you speak is pretty good – even if it’s not. 


Learn a New Language to Meet the Locals


While seeing the local culture and people can be fun and enlightening, how much better would your travels be if you could speak with the locals? How many great spots to eat could you find? Knowing the local language, even just the basics, can open up a whole new experience for you when you travel. Furthermore, knowing the local language can mean distinguishing between a good trip and an experience you’ll never forget!

Eat Like a Local When You Speak the Language


So, you’re in another country, and you want to experience everything it has to offer. Are you going to eat at Mcdonald’s or the local Hard Rock Cafe? Suppose you’re genuinely there to experience the culture. In that case, you want to eat like a local, and knowing the local language can be an integral part of finding a great, out-of-the-way local place outside of the tourist district so you can get a real foodie experience of a grandmother’s family recipe which dates back several hundred years. Now isn’t that a better experience than eating another cheeseburger?

Knowing the Local Language When You Get Lost or Sick


While you may not know the medical terminology in a foreign language, knowing the essential body parts and how to say everyday words such as bus, street, and car, can make a big difference when you’re lost or sick while traveling. Although you may not be able to tell them detailed information about where you want to go or how you’re feeling, they can at least get the gist of what it is you’re looking to do or who you want to see on your vacation. 

Final Backup Plan: How to use google translate when traveling

You don’t want to use it as a crutch but remember that google translate is there if you need it. And hopefully you have good internet or your phone works in this new country (get a local sim or make sure that your phone plan works in the country).

One trick I have used is to speak entire sentences into google translate and play the result out loud for the person you are talking to to hear. They can do the same thing in their language. You reverse the translation and have them speak into the phone and play it for yourself. This works great if you get stuck and need something important to be conveyed like when does my plane flight take off. You can also turn your phone sideways and google will show the sentences in one or the other language so it can be read. Sometimes this is a better way to go with a foreigner. Let them read it.

I call this a crutch because if you use it more than once in a while it will interrupt your language learning. The best learning comes from struggle and being stuck trying to say something. As humans, we get frustrated when we cannot communicate and someone cannot understand us. That frustration forces us to figure it out. Google translate removes the sticking point. Try to never use it but remember its there if you need it. I got stuck in a few countries like Japan where no one spoke any English and I needed something important. I was trying to talk to the guy at Lost and Found and would have never gotten my items if I didn’t have google to put it into Japanese. 

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