How to Get by in a Country Where You Don’t Know the Language

How to Get by in a Country Where You Don’t Know the Language


Traveling to a foreign country can be daunting if you don’t know the local language, and while François Thibault, the cellar master and co-founder of Grey Goose, speaks only French, his job requires constant travel around the world. “Over the years, I’ve learned how to navigate foreign countries with limited verbal communication,” he said.

Mr. Thibault has a number of tips to help travelers manage in a destination when they don’t speak the native tongue, based on his own experience. Here are a few of them.

Download a Language Translation App

Traveling in foreign countries has become much easier in the past few years thanks to the many foreign language apps which translate words on the spot. Mr. Thibault tends to rely on Google Translate and suggests that travelers find an app that works for them. Ideally, find one that specializes in the language you need to translate especially if the language uses a character set you’re not familiar with, or have difficulty pronouncing.

But take note: in Mr. Thibault’s experience, these apps work best when you’re trying to decipher something in writing, like a restaurant menu or a street sign, rather than in the midst of a conversation.

Speak with Your Hands and Head

Pointing with your hands and nodding or shaking your head, Mr. Thibault said, are an easy way to communicate with locals in the country you’re in. “Gestures are almost all universally understood,” he said.

There are exceptions however. In many of the countries in the Balkans, for example, nodding means “no,” and shaking your head means “yes.” Also, although a smile usually conveys friendliness, in some countries such as Russia, locals don’t smile at people they don’t know. A quick web search for the country you’re visiting and “gestures” or “body language” will turn up anything you need to be aware of before you go.

Learn a Few Key Words

Knowing basic words and phrases like “hello,” “thank you” and “I’m sorry, I don’t speak [insert the language of the country you’re visiting], do you speak English?” are a must, Mr. Thibault said. Showing that you care enough to learn some of the language before you went, and at least enough to acknowledge that you don’t know more, is a form of respect and will go a long way to endear you to locals.

He suggested going on YouTube to find a tutorial on how to spell and say basic words and phrases, ideally from native speakers eager to teach would-be visitors. “It’ll take five minutes of your time and is well worth it,” he said.

Work with a Local Travel Agent

If you feel particularly uncomfortable in the country you’re headed to, and you have to go anyway, relying on a local travel agent who knows both your and your destination’s language can be incredibly useful.

He or she can step in to help translate over the phone should any major issues arise, especially with things like flights, lodging, or other travel-related issues. Many agents also offer services 24 hours a day, so help is just a quick call away no matter what the problem may be.

Hire a Local Tour Guide

A tour guide can help you get a better grasp of the local language and is a good person to practice words and phrases with. Whenever Mr. Thibault visits a new country, he books a sightseeing tour with a guide on the first day of his trip. “I use this day to learn about my destination and get familiar with the language,” he said.

You can always search the web for local tour guides and fixers before you go, or alternatively find a guide through your hotel’s concierge a travel agent or by calling the local tourist office.



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