What to do when traveling to a country you do not speak the language


The wold is a global village, restricting ourselves from traveling because of language differences will not take us far. Language is a means of communication. It’s a means of exchange and the beginning of human interaction. Often, we are faced with situations where we get misunderstood because of differences in interpretation and views; imagine then a situation where language itself is a barrier.

Communication is a requirement for daily living therefore it is an important aspect to consider in traveling abroad.

Did you know that having basic knowledge of a foreign language is also an advantage in visa application and interviews?

A common mistake is planning a visit to a foreign place without having basic knowledge of the language they speak, nor seeking assistance from a local interpreter/guide.

As a traveler, it is possible to get stuck overseas due to language barrier.

Rita(real name withheld) was a traveler from an English-speaking country going to a French-speaking country to attend  a business conference. She had directions of where she was headed but could not communicate successfully with the locals upon arrival. Everyone she stopped to have a conversation with could not help. She was frustrated for hours as she roamed along the walkway stopping anyone who cared to listen in a desperate attempt to find someone who could speak English. Pheewww! A task it was.

Fortunately, someone from her neighboring country noticed a certain kind of bag amongst her luggage and immediately identified the bag to be the popular “Ghana-must-go” bag as it was locally called.  Immediately his interest was aroused, he walked up to her, conversed with her asking where she was from and what she was up to.

He told her he had not seen someone with that homemade bag for a long time in that city, hence his curiosity. They got talking and he ended up accompanying her all the way to her final destination. What luck!  That was how she scaled the first hurdle as a result of language differences.

Some say she must have prayed fervently before embarking on her journey to have a guide sent from above. What do you say?

  The following are some tips to consider when traveling to a country you do not speak the language.

  • Learn the language; at least the basic words.

As part of the pre-plan stage, enrol for foreign language classes or download learning apps like Duolingo( a zero-cost app) for assistance. Know the basic words frequently used on daily basis.

Examples of words in daily use include; Hello, Yes, No, Please, Thank you, greetings example Good morning, Good evening; Do you speak English? Could you refer me to someone who speaks English? Please I need directions; Help!

Making an effort to learn these will prove quite helpful and it will be easy for the locals to understand you and offer help.

  • Use a translator app

There are lots of apps to choose from, the commonest app is the Google translate app and it’s a free translation service. Point the app’s camera at a text (example menu, road sign etc.) and the app will automatically translate it. It also becomes easier to have a conversation; select a language, speak into the app’s microphone, and the app translates whatever it hears in either language into the other.

  • Hire a professional translation service

 For translating your professional documents, there are services such as www.Mytranslation.com; an online professional translation agency.

 Clients upload their documents to the marketplace and freelance translators are notified by email and invited to negotiate price and deadline proposals. At the end, the client compares proposals, translators profiles and translator ratings then, choses which freelancer they wish to work with.

  • Arrange for Airport Pick-up

After going through the tiring process of check-ins, check outs and jet-lags, moving around with your luggage in search of a cabman who understands your language can be time wasting and frustrating.

In planning your itinerary, make a request for pickup services and on arrival someone will be at the waiting lounge to identify and pick you up to your destination with ease.

  • Have your hotel’s complimentary card in the local language

With this it is easy to hand it to any local or cabman for directions

  • Use Google maps

Features of this app include: Find a place, Know your location, Get directions, Drive, Walk, Public transport etc. It is a lifesaver. Study how to use it and you will always be guided.

  • Don’t be shy

Anyone can get lost so don’t be reluctant to ask questions as you might get stuck further and become farther away from your destination.

Learning a new language can be helpful in many ways. It can boost your memory, add leverage to your resume and increase your chances of getting an international job etc.

In the pre-planning stage, considering the language(s) of the country you intend to visit is crucial. Preparing in advance makes your travel experience better.

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Vivian Etefia

Written by Vivian Etefia

From years of experience, i noticed most people have limited access to relatable basic travel information: the wheres, whys & hows of travel & hospitality.
This blog seeks to address these issues. Let me inspire you into the world of travel.
I am Vivian Etefia. A travel operator based in Lagos, Nigeria.