If you are a native English speaker, you are lucky. Thanks to its widespread influence, we can travel to far-flung places and still be understood in our mother tongue.
However, we shouldn’t be too reliant on someone else’s second language skills. There are places, even close to home, where English is not spoken or understood, but don’t let that put you off visiting.
Research your destination in advance
We cannot rely on speaking English everywhere we go; being over-prepared is better than arriving somewhere and floundering.
Google your destination before you travel, is English widely spoken? Check hotel websites and restaurant menus, are they in English? If the answer is no, you are likely heading somewhere not many will understand you.
To be the best prepared, print out maps of the locality, and make sure your hotel or residence is marked. Add restaurants and attractions. If your phone runs out of battery, gets lost, or can’t connect to Wi-Fi, you can rely on the hard copy of the map to get you around.
Why not add a printed document to your pile that includes useful phrases in the language of the country you are visiting? Things like ‘Where is the restroom’ or ‘How do I get to the train station’ are always helpful.
Download a translation app
Sometimes, we can learn/research as many useful phrases as we like, but the truth is, when you travel extensively, it is hard to retain 10+ languages.
The best translation apps
Google Translate – This is my translation app of choice. There are currently 133 languages within the app, 70 of which have audio translation and written. Sixty languages are available to be downloaded and used offline.
The app isn’t perfect, but it is very reliable. You can take photos and the app will translate any words detected. This is especially useful when reading through menus.
Google Translate is free on iOS and Android.
Microsoft Translate – Offers real-time translated conversations and outperforms all competitors regarding the speed of translating voice conversations, this is super useful when you are in a hurry and trying to understand someone.
Microsoft also benefits from the “multi-language conversation” feature, allowing multiple people to communicate in different languages as they speak it.
Microsoft Translate is free on iOS and Android.
DeepL – Beating even Google Translate’s accuracy, DeepL is one of the best translation apps out there. Unfortunately, it is more limited in its language offerings and focuses mainly on European languages.
Like Google, an advantage of the DeepL mobile app is real-time camera translations and instant speech translation. The downside is that you cannot translate with DeepL when offline.
DeepL is free on iOS and Android.
Book English speaking tours
A tour is one of the best ways to experience and get to know a new place. Often the tours will offer different guides who specialise in various languages. This is your chance to pick a guide that can speak English.
I recommend downloading GetYourGuide, an online marketplace for tour guides and excursions. GetYourGuide sells tickets for a huge range of activities, including cooking classes, boat tours, city walking tours, and visiting tourist attractions. GetYourGuide offers over 60,000 tours and experiences worldwide in 150 countries, in 22 languages, and 40 currencies.
Tour hosts will upload which languages they can conduct a tour which can be viewed on the GetYourGuide website or app before you book.
Viator is also a good option when booking activities abroad. However, these tours are primarily hosted in English only.
Use ride hailing apps
I’m not the biggest fan of Uber and Bolt, but they are great when you don’t speak the native language of the city you are visiting.
Using a ride-hailing app means you can let the driver know in advance where you are going; there will be no confusion when getting in the taxi and no disputes when it’s time to pay.
Another bonus, the driver will be able to see your location on his end of the app, so there is no need to try and have a conversation over the phone to find out where you are waiting.
Don’t forget to point
It sounds simple, but using your body is a great way to be understood when you can’t communicate with words.
When I was in Germany, my car started beeping. I needed coolant, my German language skills could improve, and I had no phone signal.
I stopped at a service station and sought assistance from two men in the shop. They didn’t understand me, and I had no idea what they were saying, so I started gesturing with my hands. I popped the bonnet, pointed to the coolant compartment, and they instantly understood what I was after.
I followed them back into the store, where they showed me the right product to buy on the shelf, I purchased it, and they filled up my coolant tank. The last bit I knew how to do, but they wanted to help, so I thought, why not!?
The moral is not everyone in the world can speak or hear. Use your hands and gestures to try and get your point across.
In the end, travelling through non-English speaking countries offers an unforgettable voyage of discovery. Language barriers often bear no obstacle to forming connections with locals. Just ensure you are well-prepared and use some of the tips above to make your experience a little easier.