News flash: not everyone in the world knows English. I hear a lot of American tourists naively say “I’m not going to bother learning the language because everyone knows English fluently.” Sure, if you’re going to a predominantly English speaking country like Ireland or England they will. You can probably get away with it in big tourists cities like Venice or Paris (although they might pretend they don’t know English, like when I went to Paris).
The older generation in small country towns have a very small chance of knowing English – the best you can hope for is a young waiter who knows a few phrases. When I went to my mom’s hometown in Poland, I couldn’t find any taxi drivers or shop owners who spoke English. I already knew some basic Polish, but I studied a few key words before I left. Being able to say a few words when you’re asking for something will go a long way, especially if the residents don’t speak any English. Here’s my tips on how to travel to town that don’t speak English.
Pointing Can Go a Long Way
I used to feel rude pointing, but realized sometimes that’s the only way to get your point (no pun intended) across. When I realized neither I nor the store clerk understood each other’s language in a small shop in Italy, it was the only way to get what I wanted. I pointed to the item I was looking at and held up one finger to indicate one of them. I took note of the price so I could pay her the correct amount without having to speak.
Use Google Translate
Google recently changed this app so you can now use it offline instead of needing to be connected to wi-fi. There’s so many neat ways to use Google Translate. You can speak into it, have it translate what you said into the country’s language, and the other person can speak their language and it translate back to your language. You can also take a picture of a menu or sign and have it translate the words right in front of you. Technology these days!
Carry a Mini Phrasebook
Phrasebooks are getting outdated and are bulky to carry around. One smart solution to this is to buy a pocket-size phrasebook. Rick Steves has these available for many countries so you can get just the information you need. I have his French/Italian/German phrasebook that’s so small it barely takes up any space, but has hundreds of key phrases I might need in each of these countries.
Keep Phrases Simple
Don’t try to overdo yourself with a long phrase like “Do you have a bathroom I can use?” You’re probably butchering the phrase completely, which is going to be even more confusing to the receiving end. Simply say, “Toilette?” and the other person can point to the direction it’s in.
Have a Map Ready
If you’re getting a taxi somewhere, always have a map on your phone to show the driver where you want to go. Sometimes the address doesn’t mean anything to them, and many drivers in small towns don’t have any kind of GPS. Don’t ever assume that they’ll know how to get everywhere like they would in London or New York City.
To do this, enter the directions in Google Maps on your phone while you’re connected to wi-fi and keep it up. If you have cellular data turned off but your phone’s not on airplane mode, you’ll still see the blue dot showing you where you’re going. My taxi driver in Poland was going the wrong way, so I was able to point it out to him and point north to where I was trying to go.
Learn Basic Phrases
It may not seem like it’ll get you far, but you’ll be surprised at how helpful phases like “hello,” “how are you?,” and “thank you” can be. While you won’t be chatting up your neighbor at breakfast with a full conversation, you’ll feel a bit more connected at least attempting. I’ve done this many times and it turned out one of the locals spoke fluent English, so I ended up being able to have a conversation after all.
Know the Currency Exchange Rate
Even if you can’t read the words on a menu, the numbers will most likely look the same. Download an app to be able to quickly convert the country’s exchange rate so you know what you’re actually paying. I do this in foreign countries whether they speak my language or not. It saves so much money to be in the know about how much you’re actually paying.
What other tips do you have on how to travel to countries that don’t speak your language?
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