How to Communicate When Traveling in a Foreign Country
One of the most intimidating parts of traveling can be the language barrier. Especially if you don't know how to communicate when traveling in a foreign country. Everything seems bigger, more urgent, and the confusion that ensues can snowball to the point that you are lost and crying in the middle of the train station being consoled by policemen who don't understand. Not that I would know how that feels....ahem....moving on.
After a couple of decades of travel, I have put together a guide on how I have learned how to better communicate when traveling. Now I'm the one consoling and helping families, crying women, and even making locals laugh.
How to Communicate Over Wifi
While for some this can be costly, there are a lot of options for finding free Wifi in restaurants/shops, etc. I typically like to book a hotel/hostel that specifically has good wifi, so I can research questions in the local language I may need to ask before I leave.
What I Personally Use to Over Come the Language Barrier:
If you can afford a little portable Wifi device though, this will - by far - be the best investment on your trip. Personally, I use my phone, with AT&T as my carrier - they have an 'International Passport' option, where for $10 a day I can use my normal data, Wifi, minutes, and text messaging.
If you are going for longer than 7 days, then I recommend signing up for something a little more affordable like Tep Wireless. This pocket-sized device can be used in over 100 countries, is easily recharged (via MicroUSB Cable), you can pick the plan you want from 1GB/day for $5.95 per day all the way up to 5GB/day at $11.95/day. They also have a customer support chat available 24/7. The best part is that you can rent the Teppy Pocket, and don't have to fork out $200 to buy it upfront.
Some other options you could consider if you are traveling for more than 8 days that are slightly more expensive but still relatively affordable; especially if you are a frequent international traveler.
Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L WiFi Hotspot (around $199 for device)
- Verizon charges $80 per month for "unlimited" data, which includes 15 GB of 4G LTE. The battery lasts about 24 hours, is removable so you can just change it as needed. It can connect up to 16 devices at a time.
Verizon charges $80 per month for "unlimited" data, which includes 15 GB of 4G LTE. The battery lasts about 24 hours, is removable so you can just change it as needed. It can connect up to 16 devices at a time.
Skyroam Solis (Around $149 for device)
- This one works in over 100 countries and data costs around $9 per day with a secure 4G LTE with download speeds of 500MB. It has a 16-hour battery life and can be connected to 5 devices.
This one works in over 100 countries and data costs around $9 per day with a secure 4G LTE with download speeds of 500MB. It has a 16-hour battery life and can be connected to 5 devices.
Netgear Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot ($199 for the device itself)
- This device is more for AT&T users. It can connect up to 20 devices, has 2.4-5 GHZ Wifi. The battery lasts around 24 hours and can be used with Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0. What I really like about this one is that you can use an ethernet cord with it as well. It has a full-sized USB port, so you can share files between devices to the internet much quicker (ie/uploading videos etc..).
This device is more for AT&T users. It can connect up to 20 devices, has 2.4-5 GHZ Wifi. The battery lasts around 24 hours and can be used with Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0. What I really like about this one is that you can use an ethernet cord with it as well. It has a full-sized USB port, so you can share files between devices to the internet much quicker (ie/uploading videos etc..).
Coolpad SURF Mobile Hotspot (about $72 for the device)
- Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n connectivity to up to 15 devices by utilizing T-Mobile's 4G LTE network. So you are limited in certain countries, I would check the coverage map to ensure the device will work. It also only provides about 5 hours of use, and there is no signal strength display.
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n connectivity to up to 15 devices by utilizing T-Mobile's 4G LTE network. So you are limited in certain countries, I would check the coverage map to ensure the device will work. It also only provides about 5 hours of use, and there is no signal strength display.
Huaawei E5770s Mobile Hotspot - ANY PROVIDER
- This supports about 10 different devices, can be used with any service provider because it comes unlocked. It provides 4G LTE globally.
This supports about 10 different devices, can be used with any service provider because it comes unlocked. It provides 4G LTE globally.
Use Social Media To Communicate While Traveling
Now you have several options for WiFi while traveling, you can utilize things like Facebook, Google Hangouts, Skype, WhatsApp to talk to friends at home without using your minutes or texting. Make sure you put your phone on airplane mode and then turn on the WiFi - so you don't incur hidden fees on your telephone plan.
I think WhatsApp is one of the biggest apps used by those around the world. I used it to communicate with friends in Morocco and to coordinate my driver when going to Lake Atitlan (A very remote area) in Guatemala. So be sure to download that before you go. It does require you to give people your real telephone number, but also has a 'block' function if things get uncomfortable via messaging.
How To Communicate When Traveling, and Stay CALM
Whenever I start getting nervous, especially when meeting new people - I have a mantra, "We all poop on the same pot". For some reason, it puts a smile on my face, breaks the ice inside my head and then I can proceed. If this doesn't work, then I try my other techniques.
Make it a Game
Making it a game is the best way, for me personally, to remain calm when trying to communicate. I'm prone to anxiety, given my history, so tapping into my creative genius and making it a game is the best way for me to stay calm.
I will typically bring a pad of paper with me and if I don't know how to pronounce the words, then I draw pictures. Most of the time, showing a picture does the trick. What if you can't draw though?
There are cards or pre-made quick point cards that people use to communicate things they want. We use these cards all the time when we have a patient on a ventilator. There are certain human functions and needs that are very common and widely recognized. On one side of the card, there can be phrases or even an alphabet; while on the other side, there are photos of what the person needs/wants. So browse on Pinterest for quick point communication cards and I'm sure you will find exactly what you are looking for.
If you say the wrong thing, and they giggle - don't be offended. For example, there are some languages like Portuguese, where 'pickup' can also mean 'kill' in a different country. So, anyone, this could be funny, or scary - and could elicit a giggle no matter what country it happened in. So take it in stride, make fun of yourself and thank them for being patient with you.
If they are not patient with you, I still thank them and politely tell them I will ask someone else, and sorry to bother them. I always try to remember that just because I am on vacation, with loads of time, the people I ask for help are taking time our of their day/vacation to help you. I have had people completely ignore me & I still offer a smile and wish them good-day. I have other locals, who walk with me from place to place, stand in line with me and get me on the right train - taking more than 45 minutes out of their day to help.
There are times you won't be able to find help though. For my fellow Americans, DO NOT GET ANGRY NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH!!! There is nothing that will drive away help more, than standing at the hotel, restaurant or ticket line like an American putting their hands on their hips and loudly exclaiming, "Well this is just ridiculous, doesn't anyone here speak English?" - no one will want to help you if you do. Saying things like this is what gives Americans a bad reputation as being, loud, rude, and snooty. Don't be like them, please....
Don't Be Embarrassed
There are so many other things that you could be embarrassed about - like when you think you need to fart, but it is actually a shart. If you don't know what a shart is, consider yourself blessed - if you're curious, use urban dictionary to look it up.
The point is, everyone expects you to not be fluent - so if you don't get the words exactly right, don't panic. Take a deep breath, laugh at yourself, know how to say sorry in their language. If you get too flustered, or your brain is fried from all the touring or the red-eye - revert to the Kwikpoint card (explained below) or drawing a picture.
Research Common Phrases
The number one thing to remember when beginning to learn a language is to not use big words or long phrases. Start small and use flashcards to memorize them so you aren't fumbling and it comes second nature. If you aren't sure how to pronounce something, Google and YouTube are going to work wonders for you. Here are a few phrases you will likely need to know when traveling, shopping, eating, meeting people, and if you run into an emergency.
Use your Resources To Communicate While Traveling
We live in a world full of technology, and advanced communication devices. So it is so much easier to get past the language barrier than ever before. Here are a few resources I personally use to communicate in a different country.
My number one resource is Google Translate that I use on my phone, with the AT&T passport. The reason I like this so much is that you can do a voice to text with it. It also has a conversational function on it, where you can easily switch back and forth between languages and have them just speak into your phone. They check the text to make sure it is what they mean to say, edit what needs to be edited, and then you go back and forth.
This became very useful when I was trying to figure out what the safest way to get my friend to the airport was. It was in Santiago, I speak enough Spanish to get around, but when it comes to safety - you need details. So I was able to use Google translate, to understand how and who would take my friend to the airport. If you use Uber in the city, and the police catch you - you can get a $1000 fine. There were also reports of an unregistered Uber driver pick you up, and then take you to an obscure place in town - where they then rob you. S
I was also warned that I shouldn't have bought the strawberries from the street vendors, because there was a big problem with diarrhea with travelers there. Apparently, turtles had invaded some of the water sources, and put Salmonella in the water systems - the locals were used to it, but travelers coming in - it was creating a big problem.
If you want something super affordable, can't speak the language, and don't draw pictures very well - then I would suggest a Kwikpoint card. This would be the bare minimum that I would take with you in order to communicate. You can get cards with small colorful photos on them, in specific groupings that visually can be easily recognized and understood throughout the world. If they don't have it in their country, they will likely find someone who can explain it to you - or they can use their own phone/computer to use google translate to tell you.
Find A Common Ground
Let them know you are sorry you don't speak their language but are trying to make things as easy as possible to have a good trip. This really breaks the ice and lets them know that you don't think you are better than they are.
There are WAY too many times that I have heard people say, "Doesn't anyone around here speaks English?" when traveling in a foreign country. This is absurd, and wouldn't hold up in the USA if someone came and demanded someone spoke Spanish or French. So get off your high horse, realize it isn't the USA - and so you should at least ATTEMPT to speak the primary language of the country you are visiting.
You have to remember you a VISITOR, not a foreign dignitary or some royalty that should be cow-towed to because you are an American. So check yourself, before you wreck yourself.
Now You Know How To Communicate In A Foreign Country
While you may not be fluent in the language of the country you will visit, now you have the resources to help put your mind at ease about the language barrier. Just don't give up, be polite, stay calm and realize we are all humans. Invest in a good Kwikpoint card, Wifi, and make sure you can access Google Translate and I promise you will have no trouble navigating the world despite your language limitations.
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Welcome to Culture Trekking!
My name is Janiel, I specialize in solo female travel, cultural connections, sustainable adventures, food and history to help make your travel experiences fun, meaningful, and delicious. My experience in travel, and my personal story have allowed me to get published in Fodor's Travel, Atlas Obscura, Metro.co.uk, Trip Advisor, and multiple Podcast interviews. You can find me on pretty much every social media channel YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok. To read more about me and my story click here. If you are a brand and would like to work with me, click here.