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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.
iTranslate is another good translator app and Way Go App is a fun visual app that translates photo text.
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!
13 thoughts on “4 tips to nail effective communication as a solo traveler”
Great tips Liz !! Language is always a problem but you don’t have to give up ! Right now I am learning spanish it is hard but I know I will do it
I’m fluent in Spanish after studying it for years and living in Spain, it helps so much when traveling!
It’s very important to know basic phrases and having language apps in hand when traveling to non english speaking country. 100% agree with the tips on your blog, Liz!
I agree with all these tips! When I took a solo trip around Europe/North Africa in the ’70s, one of the things I used most often was a pocket-sized handbook: something like “Common Phrases in 16 Languages”. It really came in handy, but I don’t know if it is still published.
Great post Liz! Totally agree with you. There’s nothing worse than coming across those travellers who don’t bother to learn world of the language… it’s so important to respect the culture of the country you’re exploring and to make the effort!
Another thing I do is always make sure I have a pen and paper to hand (handy for random bursts of blogging inspiration also!) – a quick doodle can always help if you’re stuck :).
great tip, I always carry pen and paper too!
I have found Esperanto of a lot of use when travelling on my own, to get my bearings within a country. Esperanto may not be perfect, but I’ve used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job, serving as a unique common language on my travels in, for example, Armenia and Bulgaria.
Esperanto speakers are highly organised. There is a Jarlibro (Yearbook) published annually giving access to a network of local representatives. These people, scattered all over the world and act as ‘consuls’, providing help and information, and passing on the visitor from another country to his/her contacts.
About 52,000 people have signed on for the new (beta) Duolingo Esperanto course in just a month.
Great tip, thanks!
Great post, Liz!
I totally agree with you, I’m also currently in Italy having same problems with language, but I guess I like it. Italian language is even nice to just hear, I’m gonna spend extra month or months here.
And also talking with your hands and drawings makes you feel more away from home, thats what you want when you’re travelling, right?
Greetins from Sarzana,
Thanx Liz for all these suggestions. Really all are fantastic, everyone should try this
Hi Liz, there are great tips. unfortunately, Language barriers sometime hold people back so that tightening their list of countries they would like to visit. I really like the idea of the visual translator in your tip#2. I’m thinking about traveling to South America and I’m sure this app will be helpful for me. Thanks for those helpful tips.
You really mentioned a great important tips for solo traveler.
Another similar to this i found a good one, so sharing here is-