Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn't Take A Year Off: Reason #8 "How Will You Communicate Without Speaking The Language?"

Pulling up your family's suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: How will you communicate without speaking the language?

With an itinerary covering thirteen countries and eight languages you might think that language would be a major stumbling block for our family. With half our time in Spanish-speaking countries, it helps that we are all now proficient in that language, but we have spent half our time in places where we don’t speak the local language. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are traveling and you don’t speak the local language.

1) English is (almost) everywhere. The English language is spoken in one form or another in many places on the globe and you’ll continually be surprised by the number of people in out-of-the-way places who can converse in English.
2) Motivation trumps language skills. Most of the people you’ll deal with while traveling are people who want to sell you something: a hotel room, a meal, laundry services, that pretty little artisan handbag. To travel is to be needy on a daily basis; those whose livelihood depends on fulfilling those needs will be more than happy to overcome language differences to close the sale.
3) Context conveys meaning. If you show up at a hotel at midnight with your backpacks, looking tired and desperately in need of sleep, do you really need to speak a common language with the hotel owner to understand what is being communicated?
4) If you really need it, so do the locals. Much of communication while traveling is driven by need fulfillment. Your interactions with locals will be about what you need, not about philosophy or art history. For example, if it is monsoon season in Thailand, there will umbrellas on sale everywhere.
5) Think about who colonized the country. If you are going to Morocco, chances are your high school French will come in handy. In Hong Kong all you will need is English. In central and south America, whatever Spanish you’ve learned in school will help considerably.
6) A smile is worth a thousand words. A smile goes a long way to smoothing over language barriers. 25 years ago I traveled with a young German man who had been in South America for 7 months and had not learned a single word of Spanish. In the interactions that I observed, he spoke English slowly with a huge smile on his face while trying to get his point across. The locals were so charmed with his smile they tried extra hard to understand what he was saying. He usually got what he wanted.

With these things in mind, you will find yourself in situations where there is a language barrier. When you do, here are some tips to help you communicate.

1) Learn the basics. Get a phrase book and learn the basics: “good day”, “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “please”, “how much”, etc.
2) Use your fingers. While negotiating a price in a market, flash a single finger and then five fingers to convey that your offer is fifteen of the local currency. It’s a market so they’ve seen this before. In a restaurant, point at that tasty meal that the guy next to you is enjoying.
3) Write it down. If you have a pen and paper handy, negotiate by writing down the prices on paper. This has the added benefit of documenting the final price, in case an unethical merchant tries to change it after you’ve struck an agreement.
4) Use a calculator. When haggling, use the merchant’s or your calculator to make sure that you both have the same number in mind. Punch in your offer and hand it to the merchant. He or she will counter by punching in a new number and handing the calculator back to you. Simple head nodding will convey agreement or disagreement.
5) Use your pantomime skills. Once when I was in China, I wanted to order an omelet in a small restaurant. After trying English and quickly exhausting my limited Mandarin, I got my protein with a succession of 4 crude but effective pantomimed movements: flapping wings accompanied by clucking noises >> reaching down for an egg >> breaking the egg >> scrambling the egg. Yes I got an incredulous look, but I got my omelet as well.

I’ve seen many circumstances where two people speak the same language but don’t communicate, leading me to believe that communication is not language dependent. The bottom line is that an inability to speak the language is not a barrier to enjoying a great overseas trip.


  1. I have this wonderful visual of you doing the chicken dance for a collection of bemused Chinese waiters. Oh to have been there....

    Great tips, and so true. Language barriers are totally surmountable.

  2. The tips are so useful and valuable for many travelers around the world to follow and develop motivation to learn different language of the world breaking the barrier of travel communication.

  3. Relying less on language really helps you develop other types of communication skills. And not minding looking silly is actually a wonderful ability! It's a key to freedom and many wonderful encounters. And you always learn more new words that way too!

  4. Cam,
    As a seasoned traveler, I'm sure that you have a story that could top the chicken dance.

  5. Georgia,
    You are right about developing other types of communication skills.
    Thanks for your comment.