Too many people are reluctant to explore the world because they are afraid of trying to communicate with non-English speakers.

We want you to know that there is always a way around not knowing the language.

You might believe that if you can’t speak the language, you won’t be able to communicate at all. After travelling to over 20 non-English-speaking countries, we can assure you that you will find a way to communicate (and understand) no matter what.

We’ve found that not knowing the language has never prevented us from finding food, shelter, or transportation. It has never stopped us from meeting locals and having a laugh with them. It has never kept us from enjoying our travels in any way, but it can be hilarious and create some bizarre scenarios.

So how do we do it?

A Few Basics Go a Long Way.

To start with, it’s always helpful (and polite) to know a few simple phrases, at least “hello” and “thank you.” If you have a few weeks before your trip, or even just a long plane ride, practice greetings, directions, numbers, and how to order food and drink.

Learn how to order the essentials.  

Use Your Phone

Many situations can quickly be resolved with the use of a translation app, like Google Translate, on your phone. Make sure the language you need is downloaded for offline use!

You can also search Google Images to help you out, or use a drawing app.

Google translate could become a very good friend. 

Try New Words, New Phrases, New Gestures – Just Keep Trying!

Not sure where your attempts at communication went wrong? Remember that no two languages line up perfectly. You may have unintentionally used some local slang that confused the meaning of your words (I’ve gotten in trouble with accidental idioms that use words like “yellow” or “egg”), or there might not be a direct translation of what you’re saying, causing your translation app to miss the mark.

No two languages line up perfectly. 

If you’re trying to speak an Asian language, tones can often change your meaning. In Thai, ‘gly’ can mean near or far, depending on how your voice rises or falls. That can definitely cause some confusion!

Even body language and gestures can occasionally mean something different in another culture. I remember facing a room full of laughing teenagers (and one very red-faced boy) in China when I asked one to come talk to me with my index finger. Apparently, that gesture is quite inappropriate in their culture.

These obstacles and missteps are inescapable. You just have to laugh it off, think of another way and try again.

Accept That You Will Look Silly Sometimes.

We all have, and it’s okay!

When your limited vocabulary fails you, it’s time to use the easily-misunderstood but universal language of facial expressions, gestures and prop use. You will become a charades master. 

Some efforts will go better than others. Some will be a stroke a genius! Others will end with you looking absolutely moronic. Some will accomplish both at the same time.

We have looked like complete idiots on more than one occasion, but these are all fun stories to laugh at now.

There was the day Kristin needed some feminine hygiene products from a shopkeeper and found herself trying to demonstrate a heavy flow and miming the act of inserting a tampon. She has had prouder moments, but she did leave the store with what she was looking for.

There was also the day we needed a toilet plunger. The gesture we used could be (and was) interpreted in some very interesting ways, and the Thai woman clearly thought we’d lost the plot.

And one night at a Chinese KTV party we tried to explain we needed another microphone. That looked like something entirely different being pulled towards our mouths.

Embarrassing? Of course. But the point is that it’s all good fun. You will get some strange looks, but when everyone finally understands what you’re saying, it can be taken as a joke all around.

Anything to get that microphone!

We just have to remind ourselves that travelling is worth it. It is worth the extra patience and extra effort. It is worth every moment that frustrates, confuses, or embarrasses us – and it’s only temporarily. We eventually reach understanding, we learn from every encounter, and we always have something to laugh about later.





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  • Great article! I’ve always been a little hesitant to visit Asia since I know absolutely nothing about their languages. These tips will definitely help when I visit SE Asia this year.

  • Ashley and Alex

    The one thing we really need to work on is not getting embarrassed! I have to say that is probably our biggest barrier. Although knowing just a few phrases always helps and we have found that locals almost always appreciate it!

    • Simon – SiDash Travels

      Very true! the locals love it when you can master some of their language. The only problem is they suddenly think your fluent and might reply really fast 🙂 thanks for reading and your comment.

  • Hahaha, the joy of being the foreign monkey among the locals.. been there done that 😀 Good write up!

    • Simon – SiDash Travels

      It can provide such funny moments 🙂 thanks for reading and your comment.