How I Get By in a Foreign Country When I Don’t Know the Language

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My knowledge of Bahasa (or Indonesian) doesn’t extend far beyond “selamat pagi” (good morning) and “terima kasih” (thank you), but that doesn’t mean I should have missed out on this unforgettable trip to Indonesia. Language barriers often scare travelers away from visiting certain parts of the world, but what many don’t realize is that you don’t need to be fluent in a language to be able to get by in a foreign country.

These tips will help you learn to communicate when you know very little or absolutely nothing about the first language of the country you’re planning to visit.

1. Brush Up or Bring Your Guidebook

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Hopping online and researching “common phrases in _____” is an excellent way to practice basic phrases before you travel to a foreign country, but those phrases are often forgotten immediately upon the excitement of arrival. Bring a guidebook or phrase book along on your travels, so you can refer to it for help remembering certain phrases or numbers. Books come in especially handy at times when you don’t have internet access, which is often (unless you don’t mind racking up data charges) in other countries.

2. Start Practicing Your Charades

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You may not be planning on playing charades on your travels, but body language can be your best communication tool in a foreign country. If you need a bar of soap and don’t know how to say it in the language of the place you’re traveling, pretend to wash yourself, and the store attendant will most likely understand. The funny ways of showing what you want or need with body language will also bring you and the person you’re asking closer with a bit of laughter.

3. Use Your Hotel for Help

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Many hotel workers in foreign countries know some English, or if they don’t, they can help you find someone who does. Don’t be afraid to ask them to help you speak to your taxi driver or for a few key phrases to use if you’re headed somewhere and you need something. Have them write down the phrase or destination you’ll need, so you’re guaranteed to remember it, and you can even hand the piece of paper to someone if needed.

4. Know Some Universal Terms

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Fortunately for English speakers, a number of English words and phrases have become common around the globe. Most locals know at least a handful of English phrases in highly-visited areas, and I’ve even used terms like “toilet” and “thank you” in extremely remote parts of Asia. If you’re headed to a touristy part of a foreign country, you’ll probably even find signs with English translations.

5. Don’t Be Afraid

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The best way to enjoy your vacation in a foreign country is to get out and communicate with the locals whether you know their language or not. Group simple English phrases with your limited foreign vocabulary and some solid body language, and you’ll find that communicating and building new friendships without knowing a language is far easier you probably expected.

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About the Author: Courtney McCaffrey

Courtney McCaffrey is a freelance writer and editor based in Wilmington, N.C. In addition to writing, she lives for travel - seeing new places, learning new cultures and surfing new waves.

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