How To Talk To Someone When You Don’t Speak Their Language

So you’re in a foreign country, and you barely know how to introduce yourself. What now?
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Unclear on how to talk to someone when you don’t speak their language? To be fair, most people are. In a perfect world, you would have spent two months drilling down your basics of the local language for whichever country you’re jetting off to tomorrow. But this is a realistic scenario, and you probably never even cracked the pocket dictionary you impulse-purchased when you bought your plane tickets.

You could spend the next eight hours cramming vocab into your brain, but you probably won’t, and even if you did, it probably wouldn’t be a super effective use of your time.

Fortunately, you’re not completely screwed. Here are a few ways you can handle yourself when words alone won’t get you very far.

Get The Bare Essentials

Yes, this is the “take a crash course” solution. No, it’s not the “try to cram an entire semester’s worth of knowledge into an overnight panic session” solution.

Knowing just a handful of very basic words and phrases — hello, thank you, I’m sorry, excuse me, where’s the bathroom, I don’t speak French — can help get you through a lot of the scenarios you’ll encounter as a tourist. Moreover, people will feel less hassled about helping you when you begin the conversation politely in their own language.

You can research essential words online, or use Babbel’s special vacation course, to learn the phrases you’ll need most as a tourist in another country. You can also download the courses you want to work on before your flight takes off, and then work through them in offline mode while you’re trapped in the air with nothing else to do (note: this only works for Android and iOS in the mobile app). This method is a good use of your time, and you’re more likely to actually get around to it if you’re the procrastinating type.

Google It

Given all of its obvious shortcomings, Google Translate is not an ideal solution. But it’s certainly an option if you’re in a jam.

If you’re going to go this route, be aware that automatic translation is very error-prone, and you could be subjecting yourself to a very embarrassing language gaffe. But if you stick to basic words and phrases, you’ll probably come out alive on the other end.

This is useful for practicing a phrase ahead of time (in a place where you have WiFi), but you’ll obviously still need to deal with the fact that you probably won’t understand what anyone says back to you. To overcome this obstacle, keep reading.

Use Your Words

In this particular context, what we really mean is “use your English” — or use any other language you possibly know. Most of the world has received at least some exposure to the English language, and there’s a very good chance you’ll encounter someone who can grasp the basics of what you’re saying. And if English doesn’t work, maybe your second language will.

If you do go this route, try to be polite about it. You don’t want to seem rude or arrogant for assuming everyone else should understand your language, and you also don’t want to accidentally come off condescending in your efforts to simplify your English. Ideally, you’ll know how to introduce yourself and ask someone if they understand English in their own language first.

Depending on how well they speak, you’ll probably want to talk slowly and use simple words. The trick is to avoid shouting or raising your voice because this can be perceived as rude. Most people will be happy to help if you introduce yourself politely.

Use Your Hands

If all else fails, don’t underestimate the power of body language. Hand gestures can convey a lot of meaning (but be careful with these, because they’re not all universal! Be sure to read up on these common hand gestures to avoid abroad).

It might feel silly, but you can get your message across pretty effectively if you simply act it out: pantomime putting a fork in your mouth if you’re looking for food, or driving a car if you’re looking for a taxi.

You could also try writing down the name of a place you’re trying to get to, or drawing a picture. You know what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words. They never said those words were limited to one language.

Don't get caught off-guard.
Practice Your Basics Before You Go