Some things become inherently trickier as a solo traveler, and language skills are definitely one of them.
Without a friend or companion to lean on for help trying to muddle through a foreign language in a foreign place, getting around becomes harder, but not impossible.
I’ve been traveling alone to non-English speaking countries for almost a decade and I’ve found that as long as you are willing to give it your best shot, effective communication is always possible.
4 tips to nail effective communication as a solo traveler
1. learn common phrases
One of my biggest pet peeves are when people assume that everyone in the world should speak and understand English.
I always make sure to learn a few key words and phrases in the local language of wherever I am traveling. Even if you fail abysmally, I’ve found that the fact that you’ve made an effort to try and speak their language will always work in your favor.
Whenever I meet locals or have the opportunity to interact with people from where I am visiting, I make a conscious effort to try and learn words from them too.
More often than not they are more than happy to share and teach you a few things.
This is even possible when neither one of you can understand a word of each other’s language. Just point a lot. And smile.
2. language apps
We are also lucky that we are now in a world filled with smartphones and there are plenty of great apps out there to help ease the difficulty of traveling in a foreign language.
I often use Google Translate to quickly get an idea of food or ingredients on a menu or to see what a specific word means. The Lonely Planet Fast Talk App is another good one for phrases in the local languages.
3. visual communication
Sometimes when I don’t have data on my phone or am phoneless, I often also use pictures as a way to translate what I am trying to say.
This started because I have a food allergy (peanuts), and while I carry allergy translation cards with me, I don’t like to rely on them or their accuracy, or even if the people I am asking can read, so I carry photos of things on my phone or printed out to show people.
This works really well with food.
4. have an open mind
I never show up in a new country without at least learning a few keywords of the local language. Nowadays we are lucky in the sense that English has become so commonly spoken and understood, making international travel relatively easier for us native speakers.
I think it’s really important to be open-minded about traveling to a non-English speaking destination and also to be open-minded culturally once you are there.
I can tell you all of my favorite countries are non-English speaking and I would have hated to miss out on the chance to fall in love with them simply because I wrote it off being “too challenging” because they don’t speak English.
The same goes for once you arrive. I believe it’s important to break the superiority complex of native English speaking countries on the road and show respect for the places you are visiting by attempting to converse in their language instead of just assuming they can understand you in English.
Trust me on this one, you will be rewarded for your effort!