How to Bridge the Language Barriers while Travelling Abroad

Plunging into an altogether different culture is one of the greatest pleasures about travelling, and language is the most obvious manifestation of those cultural differences. Even if you are able to communicate to some extent in the local language, or you speak decent English, there will be a few times when you just can’t make yourself understood.


Here’s a few tips that will help you bridge the language barriers while travelling abroad:

Learn a few basic expressions

I love languages and learning new expressions, but I know many people feel a bit lazy about this one, or think it’s too hard. But believe me, it’s worth it, and it’s not as hard as you think.

Just stick to basic expressions, like “good morning”, “hello”, “thank you” and “good bye”. Even if that’s all you can manage to say, local people will definitely appreciate it, and sometimes find it funny or endearing, which is always a great ice-breaker. I’m sure you can think back to one or more instances when you have been approached by some foreigner doing their best to utter a few words in your own language. Didn’t you appreciate that at least they made the effort? Well, we’re all the same; everywhere.

This is something I’ve experienced first-hand many times while traveling in SE Asia, even at major tourist destinations where locals are more than used to dealing with foreigners. Some people are just anxious about dealing with yet another Westerner that will take for granted that they can speak, or at least understand, English. Or they are just having a bad day, and you can see that on their faces as you go into a shop or hail a cab. Start up the conversation with a “hello” in your (let’s face it) funny accent and a smile, and see their faces relax instantly.

To get you started, you can check out the Intrepid Language Guides or, specifically for Southeast Asia, the resources listed over at Travelfish.

Speak English? Make it an asset, not a liability

If you haven’t guessed by now (as if!), English is not my first language, so I feel a little bit self-conscious about bringing this up. But I think I may be guilty of this mistake, so you may want to check if that’s your case too.

I have lived in an English-speaking country for a couple of years, and have been doing much of my work and leisure reading and tv watching in English for decades now. Although I could never pass for a native English speaker, I tend to use slang expressions, turns of phrase and contractions without thinking twice about it. Trouble is, all of these will make it harder for people to understand you if they have limited English knowledge. I’d never thought about this until a friend I was traveling with pointed it out to me, and after trying to “dumb down” my English in certain occasions when I was having communication issues, I think he’s right.

So try to remember this when dealing with local people in your travels, and keep your English simple, both the grammar and vocabulary.

Use images on your phone to show where you want to go

Nowadays we all carry more or less powerful smartphones in our pockets. And smartphones, or tablets, can be really handy even when you don’t have an internet connection.

One particular situation where I’ve found my phone useful is to communicate with local drivers. Don’t take for granted that they’ll understand where you want to go, even if you try your best or show them a map.

Maybe because you’re mispronouncing the address, or the name of the place. Or that driver can’t really understand English, or is unable to read an address, even when written in his own language’s characters (this seemed to be the case sometimes during my trip in Thailand). Or he is not used at all to interpreting maps, so showing him a screen capture pinpointing the exact location you want to go to is useless.

Here’s what you can do to make yourself understood. Prepare your trip by searching the place you want to go to in Google Maps on your phone or tablet, and use street view to make a screen capture of, say, the building’s main entrance. You can also Google the place to find images, or get them straight from the hotel/guesthouse/attraction website, if there is one. Trip Advisor, Agoda and other booking apps are also good sources of images. Just save the images to your mobile device and keep them handy.


Map - Bridge the language barriers while travelling abroad

The driver didn’t know the guesthouse by name, and the address made no sense to him. Screen captures from Google Maps at different zoom levels didn’t help either.

Street View capture

The guesthouse main entrance was kind of nondescript and couldn’t be seen from the main road nearby. The driver still couldn’t recognize the place.

A nearby landmark - Bridge the language barriers while travelling abroad

Yep, he knew where this was, immediately. I knew my guesthouse was barely a 1-minute drive from this monument, so I could give him directions from there.


If your guesthouse/hotel looks unremarkable or is in a small, hidden street, look for photos of a nearby landmark (a square, major junction, statute, monument, official building, mall). These will be instantly recognizable to any driver, and they can drop you there, or, if you have studied the area in advance, you can probably give them directions from there to your accommodation. As shown in the example above, corresponding to a guesthouse in Chiang Rai, this has proven to be quite effective for me on several occasions.

So that’s it, these are my tips for communicating when travelling abroad. Would you like to share yours in the comments section?

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