Travel Logistics: Language Barriers

Many of our friends at home love traveling, but have mostly done so within the US. After all, the US is a huge country, with a large variety of things to see – from the energy of New York to the beaches of California, and everything in between. Staying within the US also avoids some difficulties related to different languages, currency, and culture – though some of these aspects be quite interesting as well.

It’s common to be intrigued about traveling abroad, but at the same time be somewhat concerned about cost, or worrying about making mistakes – of which we’ve made plenty. For instance, I wouldn’t have necessarily backpacked through Europe after finishing university (grungy hostels and everything, using savings from my small grad student stipend), if I hadn’t had a roommate who had done this sort of travel before.

In that vein, we got a recent question from a friend, and thought that we’d write up a few posts about travel planning. That is, how we’ve dealt with some issues like the language barrier, handling foreign currency, budgeting, booking flights and accommodation (particularly for families), staying connected while traveling, and the like.

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Language Barrier Issues

It can be little scary to take your family to a country with a primary language that you don’t know. I can recall the questions in our heads (“what did we just sign up for”) when we went to China for the first time, or even this past summer when we went to Ukraine as a destination.

That said, language is a significant aspect of culture. And if you limit yourself to visiting countries where English is the native language, you will greatly limit your ability to see or try to understand cultures different than your own.

English speakers have the advantage that many people around the world understand some English as a second language, at least to varying degrees. That said, that doesn’t mean that you should automatically expect that everybody overseas to speak your native tongue – you don’t want to be “the ugly American” in that regard.

Naturally, we can only speak about our experience in this regard, but we’ve tried to write up a few different ways we’ve learned to cope with this.

How widely is English spoken in that country?

Before you worry about the language barrier, make sure there is an actual barrier.

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For instance, in Europe, English is very commonly spoken as a second language. When you’re in large, frequently-touristed areas, it’s common for English to be sufficient. Smaller, globalized countries like Netherlands or Sweden are particularly impressive in this regard. We’ve found it straightforward to get around significant parts of Eastern Europe (except Russia) with just English. Even in some countries where there were different alphabets – e.g. Greece or Israel (not technically Europe), we found English to be exceptionally widely spoken in touristed cities. In many cases, we sometimes learned “hello” and “thank you” in the local language to attempt to be polite, but not much more.

Don’t let your expectations go too far, though – for instance, even though many Dutch speak English well, it was some work to buy a 15mm bicycle wrench from a bike shop in small town Holland. Google translate helped a bit, but not as much as I hoped.

In Asia, we used only English in many places, including Indonesia and Thailand, but we also stayed in the normal tourist cities in both those countries. If you eventually want to venture out further on a subsequent trip, you can learn more of the local languages.

If English is spoken as a second language, try to speak clearly, not too quickly, and without using slang or odd idioms. Use shorter sentences or phrases, with words that are more likely to be recognizable (“hello, two tickets, please?”).

Our main point here is that you might get further than you think by just using English and sometimes pointing to things, if you’re gracious and not obnoxious about it.

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Learning some basic travel phrases

In countries where English is less widely spoken, you can get a ton of mileage out of knowing a very small set of phrases, e.g. “hello”, “thank you,” “please,” “where is the toilet?,” “yes”, “no”, and the numbers 1-10. That’s about all I can say in Chinese, and this feels like a big step up vs. knowing nothing at all.

You can get these sorts of phrases from a phrasebook, but if you want to be more confident in the pronunciation, I highly recommend the Pimsleur language series. Often, you can check these out from your local library, though the abridged versions aren’t as expensive as their comprehensive ones. The lessons are audio-only, about a half-hour each, and fairly easy to do in the car. You typically just do each lesson once since each one repeats a lot. If you get through the first 10 (i.e. Monday-Friday, for 2 weeks, on the way to work), you should gain some confidence with some super basic phrases in the language.

Note that some folks don’t like the audio-only nature of Pimsleur courses, so you might try another course like the Duolingo app instead.  But be aware that Duolingo doesn’t teach travel phrases right away, like Pimselur tends to. In any case, spending a small amount of time doing language prep can make you feel a lot more confident going in.

Getting around town without knowing the language

It’s not impossible to get around or eat in countries where you can’t read or write.

In China, we found that taxis were relatively inexpensive to use, and didn’t strictly require knowing Chinese. For instance, we kept guidebooks and maps that had the names in both English (for us) and in Chinese (for the driver). Then when we hopped in a taxi, I would open the guidebook and show them the corresponding Chinese characters. We also kept a business card from our hotel, with the address written in Chinese, that we could show drivers to get home. Same thing if we wanted to go back somewhere (e.g. for when it might be a 15 minute walk back to the closest subway station), I would take a picture on my phone of the place or sign, and show to the taxi driver. This works best in cities where the drivers will at least pretend to use the meter (it’s harder when you have to haggle a fare) – and adding in “please” and “thank you” in the local language helps soften the edge of doing this.

These days, apps like Uber can help greatly with this as well, as long as you have mobile data. Sometimes the dominant app is different by country – for instance, Grab is dominant in South East Asia.

Taking the subway is usually reasonably accessible as well. Google Maps will help compute reasonable directions when using transit. When the country doesn’t use the latin alphabet, there are various tricks – for instance, in many cases there is an English transliteration as well. In other cases, the stops are numbered as well as having a name. And in other places, we simply had to memorize the beginning of the names of the stations and count the stops.

Eating without knowing the language

In restaurants, we found various ways to order food. Some places do have English or multi-lingual menus. Other places would have picture menus. We also have used Google Translate, with mixed success. Cafeteria/buffet-style restaurants worked out well for us in Ukraine and Russia, since we could physically see the food. In Japan, it’s common to have plastic models of the food in the windows, so sometimes we had to go and point to them, but it seemed to work out. In markets with street food, you can often point and say the local equivalent of “2, please.”

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For buying non-food items in the market, typing out the price that you want to offer into your phone can transcend language barriers when bargaining. Many of the vendors have a calculator that they use for this purpose.  Regardless, our observation is that sellers in the market tend to have above-average English skills for the area.

Use Google translate

Google translate’s offline mode is awesome. You need to download the appropriate offline language pack in advance, but once you have this, you can translate, even without mobile data. Within reason.

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Make sure your expectations are reasonable. The camera feature, where you might point at some writing (even in Asian characters), can work if the handwriting isn’t too fancy, but often times it can be slow and produce bizarre translations. The goal here should be something modest, like understanding whether a menu item is chicken or a sketchier type of meat.

Hiring a local guide

In developing countries in particular, hiring a local guide can in cases be a good bet. We like traveling independently, but it’s important to recognize when a guide can add a lot of value.

Our first time going to China, in 2006, we had never gone to a country without an alphabet or with a tonal language. So we hired an English-language guide and driver. We learned a ton more about China and Chinese history than we would have visiting on our own, and it was relatively inexpensive, given the lower wages in China.

In doing so, we then realized that the street signs in the Beijing city center also had English language versions as well, and that getting around Beijing wasn’t as hard as we’d imagined. So much so, that years later, we took our children to China without a guide.

Same thing in India – we highly recommend hiring a guide/driver there, both for language and cultural barriers. While English is an official language in India, most people are vastly more conversant in their local language. And the cultural barriers are far steeper. The $70/day that we spent on an English speaking driver + car + gas was money well spent for navigating those barriers.

In Egypt too, while we could have probably visited without a guide, having a guide was inexpensive and made our traveling time far more efficient and informative.

Note that just because a country is developing, you don’t necessarily need a guide. For instance, Bali is quite easy to navigate without a guide, given that they’re quite accustomed to Australian tourists. We found that in Thailand as well. So don’t assume that a guide is strictly necessary – but consider it as an option.

Brush up on your high school Spanish or French

This isn’t an option for everybody, but you might surprise yourself with how much you might pick up with some effort before a trip.

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I’d recommend using the Pimsleur audio courses described above to help expedite re-learning and re-remembering. For instance, when we went to Peru, I did a couple lessons a day starting 2 weeks in advance, and made a lot of explicit effort to speak Spanish once we got there. I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of the trip, I was able to haggle and converse with cab drivers and hotel clerks after putting in some effort.

The other thing: consider related languages. Italian is relatively similar to Spanish or French. If you took Spanish in high school, you might pick up some Italian quicker than you’d expect, if you do a Pimsleur audio course.

Even if you haven’t studied a language before, you might find some benefit from learning the travel phrases and the alphabet, in some cases if there is a real language barrier. For instance, traveling to Russia or Ukraine is tough without being able to pronounce the Cyrillic alphabet, and the alphabet not nearly as tricky as it looks. Similarly, if you are visiting countries in the middle east where they use the Arabic numbers (like Egypt), you might consider learning the numbers if you want to buy things in the market or know how much your meal is going to cost.

Just do it

Honestly, for many places, I don’t completely remember the specifics that we did to transcend the various language barriers.

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In some cases, the language barriers can be real, and you should research the best ways to deal with them, but this issue shouldn’t completely deter you from seeing new places. It can be really satisfying going outside of your comfort zone in this area, and you can learn a lot about the world and about yourself in the process.

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