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How to Visit a Country Where Few People Speak English

Oct 11, 2019

Though about one billion people speak English as their primary or secondary language, with a world population of more than 7.5 billion, there’s a distinct possibility you won’t meet many English speakers when you’re visiting a foreign country.

For instance, in China, Brazil, and Russia fewer than 10 percent of the population speaks English. This can make for an intimidating travel experience.

Language barriers are no reason not to explore though! Only traveling to English-speaking countries will vastly limit your travels. You’ll get to see plenty of Europe and Australia, but you’ll be missing sites like the Atacama Desert in Chile, Mount Fuji in Japan, or Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.  

If you’re interested in dipping your toe in international travel, you will need to do more advance planning than you would for a “typical” vacation. Seeing amazing places and experiencing the different cultures that exist in destinations that are completely different from your home country make it all worth it! 

Before setting off on an unforgettable journey, take a deep breath and read these tips on how to prepare.

Learn a few basic phrases — and don’t be scared to use them.  

A little bit of learning can take you a long way. Sayings such as: “Hello,” “Yes,” “No,” “Excuse me,” “I would like … ,” “Where is … ?” and “Can you help me?” can assist you in finding your hotel, ordering dinner, and slipping through a packed space. 

Language apps like Duolingo and free online courses such as Coursera can help you build a basic language knowledge base. You can also work with a tutor — online or in-person — to develop your pronunciation. This is especially helpful if your trip will be longer, and learning a new language in and of itself can be fun.  

If you can’t commit to a course, watch some YouTube videos with native speakers instead. These generally go through the language “need-to-knows” in just a few minutes. Also, depending on the language you want to learn, you may be able to watch shows with subtitles.  

Using a new language can feel awkward, but don’t be scared to put your studies to the test. Attempting to say something in your new language to a friendly local will show you’re trying; versus getting frustrated because they don’t understand your language. 

TIP: Instead of learning “Restroom” learn “Toilet” instead. Toilet is more widely recognized than restroom.

When in doubt, draw or act it out. 

If words aren’t working, try acting or drawing what you’re trying to communicate. This can feel a little silly, but it works. For instance, if you’re trying to find a landmark, like the Eiffel Tower, try sketching it on a notebook, or if you’re searching for a bar, mime drinking a beverage. As long as you’re willing to get a little creative, this should help you find where you’re going.  

Before getting your mime on, do a little bit of research on body language and hand signals in the country you’re visiting. In some areas, like the Balkans, nodding your head means no and shaking it means yes. And, in Greece, the thumbs up is as rude as a middle finger is in the United States. This can lead to unnecessary confusion and unintended offensive interactions, so make sure to do your research. 

TIP: If you’re looking to get fancy with your travel notebook and pen, recording your first impression of the sights you encounter, this blog has a wealth of suggestions. 

Find a translator app. 

One of the most popular translation apps is Google Translate, and it’s for good reason. The app can convert written text on menus, signs, and anywhere else. It also works offline, so you don’t have to worry about trying to find free Wi-Fi to read a warning sign.  

Google Translate even works for spoken conversations — there’s a talk-to-text option that translates what someone is saying in real time. If you’re traveling somewhere like South Korea, which uses a character-based language, there’s an option to draw the characters and get a translation in-app. This could prove very convenient. 

Interested in a different option? A quick search in the Google Play store shows Microsoft Translator, iTranslate, and thousands of other options, so pick your favorite and you’ll be good to go.  

TIP: Using a translation app works best for written text, compared to a live conversation. It can be kind of awkward to shove a phone in someone’s face when they’re trying to take your drink order. 

When you’re out and about, have a plan for getting from point A to point B. 

From the moment you arrive at your destination, be certain you know how to transport yourself from place to place. When you’re in the airport, still dazed from the time change, this will help you avoid any enterprising strangers who may charge a much higher fare to take you to your intended destination. 

Outside of the airport, make sure you understand how public transportation works or how and where to find a taxi. Understanding these basics can give you some confidence in navigating your temporary city.

Before you leave from home, make a sheet that has the name and address of your hotel and other major landmarks you plan on visiting. This way, you’ll be able to show your taxi or bus driver exactly where you’re going, instead of explaining it. 

TIP: Airports commonly have directions written in English to public transportation options. 

Use your GPS and get a paper map. 

Your phone’s GPS is your best friend in a foreign city. If you decide to stop by a random spot during the day, using this is the easiest way to make your way there. 

Paper maps are also extremely useful navigation tools. Yes, using one of these is going to make you look super touristy, but it’s such a great tool, it’s worth it. If you’re looking for a friendly local to help direct you to a location, pointing to it on the map can bridge the communication gap.  

TIP: Download GPS maps before you leave or when you’re in an area with free wi-fi. Then, you’ll have your directions on and offline.

Ask the right person for directions. 

Your best bet for finding an English speaker is talking to a professionally dressed younger person. They likely work in an office setting where they come in contact with English speakers. Also, you’ll typically find that English is more frequently spoken by more people in cities than rural areas. 

If you’re shy and don’t want to talk to random strangers, another option is going into the nearest establishment like a hotel, convenience store, or restaurant — chances are you can find an employee there who is likely to speak the language. 

TIP: Another place to find English speakers is on a college campus or a bookstore. 

Make it guided.

Going on a guided vacation with a group itinerary is a great way to ease yourself into international travel. In a group, you’ll have the chance to explore a new area with the help of a guide who speaks the local language and truly knows the area. You’ll also have the chance to explore the city with a new group of international travelers and maybe even make a few friends. 

If you don’t want to fully commit to a guided trip, try booking a group-led day tour instead. This will give you a taste of the group experience, without a major monetary investment. 

TIP: Make sure the tour company you choose has good reviews by checking a reputable review site before booking your trip.

Ask a travel community.

An easy way to make yourself feel less anxious about going to a new location is by checking out online forums. Chances are there are plenty of other people who have already gone or want to go where you’re going. Search through the questions to see what people are saying about how easy it was to get around without knowing the local language.

Reddit is a great place to start. Google subreddit and your destination (“Subreddit Paris”) and you’ll likely find a group of eager locals or friendly expats who would love to help show you around or give advice. Facebook also has plenty of travel groups (like the Adventure Team *cough cough*) filled with people looking for and providing travel info. 

Keep the right frame of mind. 

No matter if you’re upset because you missed your flight or frustrated because you can’t find somewhere to buy water, be courteous when you chat with others. Try not to lose your head — that’s how you get into a dangerous situation. Take a deep breath and try to stay positive.

A part of traveling to new places is making mistakes and learning from them. So, go out there with a bit of humility and an open mind, and you’ll have a great time.

If someone else traveled there and figured out a way around the language differences, you can do it too. Afterward, you’ll feel great that you met a challenge head-on and succeeded!

About the Author

Kelsey Tharp

Kelsey Tharp is a content marketing specialist with Seven Corners. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, spending time with friends and daydreaming about her next vacation. At home, she’s surrounded by her dog and three cats pretty much at all times.

Read more of Kelsey’s blogs

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