Can’t speak the language? How to survive being lost in translation…

In addition to my love of travel, I have always loved and been fascinated by foreign languages: how we can experience the same world but express it in such different ways and with such a mixture of sounds. If, like me, you are a native English speaker then, like me, you have been handed a gift on a golden platter, because so much of the world uses English as a common or second language. But that doesn’t mean you can always rely on other people’s language skills to save the day. So how do you cope when you are in a country where you can’t speak the language? What about when even the alphabet isn’t the same? Here are a few of my tips for dealing with being lost in translation.

The advice below is primarily aimed at native English speakers, because that is the world I have experienced. Do you have a different first language? Do you have similar experiences from back before you could speak English well? Or have you found things to be very different for you? I would love to hear your stories in the comments section!

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When you’re hungry but you have to rely on the pictures! Shilin Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

Don’t panic

As an English speaker, we are normally in a nice, safe bubble: we can always find someone to help us who speaks English, right? But when that bubble bursts and we realise no-one can understand a word we’re saying, it can be a scary thing.

The key in these situations is not to turn and run; think it through and you will find a way to communicate. You know all those people who don’t speak English but manage to travel anyway? They survived, and so will you! Don’t be tempted to walk away and take the easy way out; with a bit of perseverance you can make yourself understood, and often these moments can be the most memorable encounters of your trip.

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Thank goodness this was translated – I don’t think I would have guessed it! Battambang, Cambodia

Make use of technology

I was recently in Taiwan, where the dominant language is Mandarin. I don’t speak it, and I definitely don’t read it. But I have a smartphone and know how to use it! In advance of my trip I downloaded a translation app, and this got me out of a couple of situations.

On my first day in Taiwan, I wanted an authentic lunch and visited a street food stall. The owner didn’t speak a word of English and I had no idea what was in the beautiful little dumplings she was selling. Taking pot luck wasn’t an option as I don’t eat meat, so out came my phone. I typed the words “no meat” into my translator and showed the stall owner the resulting Chinese translation. A nod and a smile, and she selected a number of dumplings which were vegetarian and delicious. I can’t imagine having been able to do that a few years ago, and it makes me eternally grateful for modern technology!

On the same trip, I visited a very modern coffeehouse in Tainan, in the south of Taiwan (which I have written more about in “The coffee seller of Tainan”). The owner had amazing coffee and I wanted to chat about his passion, but his very limited English and my non-existent Mandarin made it impossible to get across what I wanted to say. Again, my trusty translation app did the job, and enabled me to explain that I like good black coffee because I was first introduced to coffee-drinking in France (a phrase I couldn’t really mime!). Who cares if the translation wasn’t perfect – it did the trick, and quickly dispelled the myth that the British only drink instant coffee!

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I can read Russian – phew! Izmaylovo Kremlin, Moscow, Russia

Invest in internet on the go

Now, this does depend on your destination, but many major cities have impressive free wifi schemes, or at least 4G internet. Struggling because the signs are only in the local language? Need to know how to get to your destination, or maybe some information on what to do when you get there? Hop onto that wifi, or consider getting a local sim card or mobile wifi dongle, and you can Google to your heart’s content. Many countries allow you to hire sim cards or mobile wifi at the airport (I have done this myself in Taiwan and South Korea), and it is a godsend. Having access on the road to the same resources you had on your sofa at home will make life so much easier.

Cellphones can even enable you to translate restaurant menus by holding the camera above the phrase you want to translate. If you can get internet access on the go, it is 100% worth the money.

NB: NEVER use data roaming on your normal home contract unless you have thoroughly researched the cost. If you’re lucky, it may be cheap or even included in your normal monthly payment – for example, if your home network is in an EU country and you are travelling to another EU country. But roaming costs can be pretty devastating. I accidentally left mine on when I flew to Malaysia, and only realised when I landed, switched on my phone and immediately got a Facebook notification. I switched it straight off, and it was only active for about 30 seconds, but those 30 seconds cost me $20. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if I’d left it on for longer.

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One of those times when I was glad I had Google Maps! Informative footpath signs, Tamsui, Taiwan

Download offline maps

When the street signs are in another alphabet, it can make getting around a challenge. Consider downloading an app such as Maps.me in advance. These apps allow you to download a map of your destination in advance, so that you can use it on the go without needing a data connection. And the road names will be in English characters – phew!

Throw embarrassment to the wind… and mime!

If technology doesn’t do the trick and you are still struggling, resort to the time-honoured tradition of making a fool of yourself. It’s actually a great ice-breaker, as nothing relieves an awkward and confusing encounter like making your conversation partner laugh their head off! But it generally works. My personal favourite was in Brazil, where English really isn’t widely spoken at all. I walked into a pharmacy looking for insect repellent, having for some reason not realised that a tropical coastline would be Mecca for mosquitoes. And yes, I had to mime a mosquito bite, complete with buzzing sound, swooping fingers and poking myself in the arm. I felt like an idiot, but hey, I got the mozzie spray!

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Of course, sometimes you get a translation when the pictures would have been sufficient! Bidiyah, Oman

Try out the other languages in your arsenal

If you speak a language other than English, it’s always worth a try. For example, in Brazil the local language is Portuguese, but Spanish is not dissimilar and is spoken by nearly all the other countries in South America – whose citizens often visit Brazil. As a result, if someone doesn’t speak any English they may well be able to understand a few words of Spanish.

Other countries are former European colonies and therefore understand languages that you might not expect. The main language of Madagascar is Malagasy, but nearly everyone in the tourist industry speaks French. School children also learn French, so it’s possible to interact with them directly if you speak that language. And my limited knowledge of Russian was a godsend in Moldova, where it is the second language and the only one I could make myself understood in. Asking for 2 bottles of Diet Coke in Russian was a proud moment!

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The neon streets of Seoul, South Korea

Learn a few words of the local language anyway

Now, in an ideal world I would use the time between booking a trip and setting off to learn the language to a sufficient level that I can communicate. But let’s be honest, we have jobs and social lives and the time isn’t available. But that doesn’t stop us from learning a few words. “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please” and “Thank you” are the expressions I always try to master, and they almost invariably make a difference. Even if you then have to continue in English (or interpretative mime!), the effort to speak those few words shows respect. Plus it’s fun!


What have been your experiences with getting by in other languages? Any top tips or funny stories? Let me know in the comments below!

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18 thoughts on “Can’t speak the language? How to survive being lost in translation…

  1. Love this! I’m a language nerd so I really enjoyed this. =) Similar to your idea of using Spanish in Brazil, I have been able to at least understand a bit of Italian because of my ability to speak Spanish, which was super helpful both times that I visited Italy. Definitely a great idea to download a translation app ahead of time. I’m about to head to the Czech Republic and Poland, where I don’t speak either of those countries’ languages, so I think I may need to do that!

  2. This is a great post with some really good advice 🙂 I studied French and German (and some Russian) at university so it pains me when I can’t communicate with people at all in the local language. The European languages are usually OK for learning the basics but I like your tip about using an app for more complex languages like Mandarin!

  3. Great post! I always try to get something that helps with at least the key phrases. Travel books and apps are truly life-saving! What app do you use for translation?

  4. I love this post! I remember when I landed in Panama for my first solo backpacking trip and thinking, “I’ll be fine. I took years of Spanish, I got this,” only to realize that I remembered nothing and couldn’t understand anything. Years later, my Spanish has drastically improved but I also think that situations like this push us out of the comfort zone and encourage us to learn something new. It’s part of the reason I love to travel. 🙂

  5. Love these tips! I, too, have a love for languages! We are about to travel throughout Europe and will be thrown into a mix of languages. I always try to speak the basics of any country I roam.

  6. Great tips! I’ve used Google Translate more times than I care to admit. Thankfully, I have an unlimited data plan with T-mobile and can use it anywhere in the world! By far the most difficult time I had so far was in Thailand, it’s such a difficult language to learn!

  7. Totally agree with all these options! I’m a big advocator for learning necessary phrases of a foreign language before a trip and your tips are spot on. I especially love how to say to give miming a go – It certainly works! Also, other languages are definitely handy. I’ve used French to help me in Spain, Italy and even Germany, too. As you say some of the words are similar or understood and can get across what you’re trying to say. Great post!

  8. Definitely helpful tips for those who travel to countries where the language and alphabet is dramatically different from English. As you have mentioned technology comes to help, and I believe we won’t have such problem in near future with the advance of technology.

  9. Great tips! Whenever I’m in a country where English is not well spoken, I just make do with hand gestures and facial expression. Google translate also has an offline mode and instant translation via camera (given that you pre-downloaded the language into the app) – it’s really useful!

  10. This is definitely so helpful, because when you’re not speaking the language it’s so damn hard to be able to understand the locals and live an experience worthing the drive. When I went to Kyiev, it was the same for me, the alphabet was so different from the one I’m used to, and technology has been so useful! I believe your tips are so good to work with!

  11. These are great tips! It can be a little daunting to travel to a country when you don’t speak the language, but I have found throughout my trips that people are much more helpful than I would have imagined.

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