Tu Es WHAT? How to Overcome Language Barriers in Any Country


A smile goes a very long way — especially when you don’t speak the language. (Photo: Marybeth Bond/Gutsy Traveler)

By Marybeth Bond

Living in a village in Nepal — in the middle of the tourism off-season, might I add— taught me a thing or two about surviving in a country where you don’t speak the language. With a little help from your smartphone and a healthy dose of humility, it is easy to enjoy yourself regardless of your lingual abilities. Here are five tips I picked up from personal experience.

1. Your phone is your friend.

Translator apps are an excellent alternative to flipping through a phrase book. They also prove especially useful when the language uses an entirely different alphabet, like Greek.

My favorite app is Jibbigo, which is available for iPad, iPhone, and Android. It allows you to speak or type the word or phrase you want translated, and with just a few taps, you will have both a written and oral translation. The play button is great for avoiding awkward mispronunciations, and best of all, the app functions without an internet connection. Google Translate also works very well. All you have to do is point your phone at whatever you want translated, and boom — it shows up on your phone. And again, you don’t need an internet connection.

Related: New Google Translate Makes Conversing in a Foreign Language Way Easier


A good translator app can be a lifesaver! (Photo: Omid Tavallai/Flickr)

2. Don’t assume that people speak English.

I have heard countless people express their annoyance, and even feelings of offense, over this faux pas. Next to hello, thank you and please, “Do you speak English?” ranks very high in basic survival language. Wherever you are going learn how to say it. Even if you butcher it, people will appreciate the consideration. Learning the very basics of a language will go a long way.

Related: How Not to Learn a Language Abroad


Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But never assume. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Stocksy)

3. Ask the concierge for help.

Most people working in the hotel industry speak some English, so don’t be afraid to get some feedback on your pronunciation. Also, use them as a resource, because you know they are used to getting asked for directions — or, you know, for the best place to eat.


Hotel staff can be a very valuable resource. (Photo: Getty Images)

4. Be an adventurous eater.

I have come to view an untranslated menu as the chance to experience food I might not normally choose. It helps to point to the menu and then shrug, which conveys that you simply don’t know what to get.

Through gesticulation and fragmented speech, I have managed to get across the message that I would like the waiter to choose what he or she enjoys the most — or what is best this time of year.

Related: My Favorite Food Moments on Every Continent


Untranslated menus = the best way to expand your culinary horizons. (Photo: Wenhai Tang/Stocksy)

5. Laugh and smile … a lot.

Luckily, this body language is universal. An easygoing demeanor makes it much easier to make it through a conversation consisting mainly of gestures and miming. Brush up on your charades!


They may now know what you’re thinking, but at least they’ll understand how you’re feeling. (Photo: Lumina/Stocksy)

And hey, if you really can’t stand the language barrier, there are always language classes. Rosetta Stone is a good start, and there are countless language-learning apps like DuoLingo that will help you get familiar with the basics. And if those don’t work, try signing up for a class at your local university. You may even meet someone who will vow to learn the language with you, too. You never know!

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