Leaping the Language Barrier: How To Get By Without Speaking the Lingo

Posted on October 11, 2011


Don't know how to say something? Try pantomime.

Many travelers find themselves in a country where they don’t speak the local language. Here are some tips for getting by and leaping the communication barrier.

By Gina Mussio

It might feel daunting to visit a foreign country where you can’t speak the language. While English may be widely spoken around the world, you shouldn’t expect everyone to speak it. Be prepared to leap the language barrier with the following strategies, which will help you communicate with local people in any country, regardless of which language they speak.

  • Know basic words. These include hello, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me, sorry, bathroom, and ATM machine. It will be even more helpful if you learn how to say other common words and phrases, including numbers. You can find basic language guides for free online, and most travel guidebooks include a basic phrasebook in the appendix.
  • Use English wisely. Speak slowly and enunciate all vowels and consonants clearly. Ditch contractions, slang and figurative language, and strip the English language down to shorter sentences in the present tense. Remember that yelling never accomplishes anything, except calling attention to everyone around you that you can’t speak the local language.
  • Use international words. Choose words that are known internationally and not simply in certain areas. For example, a toilet is a toilet almost anywhere, and you will go much farther using that word instead of “bathroom” or “restroom.” Europeans go on “holiday” and a car is generally understood to be an “auto.”
  • Play charades. If necessary, pantomime to communicate your message. If you’re thirsty tip an imaginary glass; if you need to find a bathroom, do your potty dance. Perhaps everyone will have a laugh but in the end you will be more likely to get your point across and they will respect you for caring and not expecting them to speak English.
  • Carry a dictionary. Sometimes all the pantomiming in the world won’t get your message across, making a dictionary a useful tool. Can’t explain with hand gestures what a road map is? Best carry the resources to translate the world if absolutely necessary.

More Resources


Do you have any advice for leaping the language barrier? Share it with us in the comments section below!

Posted in: LIFE ABROAD