4 Tips to Organize & Plan For Travel to Countries You Can’t Communicate

Our verbal communication is a survival tool that gets us by in most day to day situations. However, have you ever thought about life without that special tool?  As I travel around the world, especially off the beaten path, verbally expressing my needs so that people actually understand me has been a constant challenge. As I travel alone to different countries where English and Spanish are not spoken, people constantly ask me the same question,

“How in the world are you able to function and communicate effectively, completely alone, across so many different cultures and countries?”

The uncertainty of not being able to communicate is one factor that leaves many people paralyzed with fear and unwilling to take a step into the unknown and travel to foreign territory.

The fear of being stranded without knowing where to go, traveling alone and not having anyone that speaks your language by your side, or going to a public place and not knowing what is on the menu, are all fears that can cause anyone to be turned away from the idea of traveling abroad.

Trust me, I know…..I had all those fears myself before traveling.

When I first began my journey, I clung to the comfortable European countries, where English was within easy reach. I never liked the idea of traveling alone, so I just comfortably stuck with my English-speaking friends in the places that I went.

If we were ever in any situation where English was not spoken, no problem, because I had the help of my friends by my side. I didn’t have to face it alone, and I didn’t have to go through that feeling of embarrassment that is associated with not knowing what the heck is going on or what to say. However, after countless trips traveling with other people, I felt a deep sense within that it was time to break outside of my comfort zone and to start my own adventure, completely alone.

 

After years of solo traveling and numerous exciting adventures around the globe, I have had my share of ups and downs, mistakes, moments of panic, and feeling of complete helplessness due to communication errors. I have prepared a list through my own personal experiences and errors on the top ways I have learned to plan, organize and effectively function and communicate across cultures and countries where the language is not my own.

1. Organization, Planning and Knowledge

When it comes to traveling to a place where the language is not your own, organization and some planning are key. I am a huge believer in the importance of researching and learning about the different places that you travel before visiting, not only for safety purposes, but for being more educated and knowledgeable when you were talking with other people. General knowledge on your location helps in any situation, but the one thing I have noticed is that this knowledge helps reduce the risk of you getting ripped off in different occasions (bus tickets, accommodation, taxi rides, food etc.)

 If you go into a situation not having any idea of what to expect, local people have a better chance of taking advantage of you.

Organizing your trip a bit, knowing the top attractions, information on the local money, areas of town you might want to stay away from, top places to eat, accommodation, wifi hot spots throughout the city, bars and night clubs, etc, are all very helpful to discover and locate beforehand. Knowing these things can save you a headache when arriving and trying to figure it all out with people in the street.

Another important point in the planning stage is learning and writing down the most important words and phrases, important destinations, street names, names of hotel, restaurants or anything you plan on going to see. Investing in a good dictionary, phrasebook, local guide book and phone with GPS may serve you well.

2. Give it your best effort and don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Part of the fun when I travel is trying to learn a few of the local words and phrases. I must admit, my pronunciation in many languages is absolutely terrible, but what I have found is that locals appreciate the effort, even if it’s not perfect.

The most important phrase I have used and memorized in various languages is, “Do you speak English?” You can be assured with this phrase that you will get at least a yes or a no, and you don’t need to know the language to understand a head shake. It’s not a realistic goal to say that you’re going to learn the language every country you visit, especially if you only plan on staying a short amount of time in each place, but a little effort sure does go a long way.

If you get a phone plan, you can always download a translator and use it when you need to communicate. If you can’t say it right, you can always make the translator talk or show the written sentence to the person you are speaking with.

3. Get in tune with your nonverbal communication

When traveling to unknown territory, gestures will be your best friend. I underestimated how much power were in gestures until I traveled to a little village in Armenia where I could not find a single person that knew English or Spanish.

I arrived after a long day of travel with an empty stomach and a craving for chicken. I stopped at a restaurant with absolutely no idea what the menu said. In a desperate desire to communicate, I started flapping my arms as if I had wings, while showing with my hand a small amount to show the person that I wanted a little bit of chicken.

They hysterically laughed due to the lack of communication, but I learned that fluency is not necessary in many situations.

Sometimes something as simple as flapping your wings can speak a full message to someone. In addition, this experience makes you a more humble person and it gives everyone a good laugh.

 


Other gestures I use daily include: thumbs up, the OK sign, pointing, different facial expressions (ex: showing disgust when I don’t like something, smiling, raising shoulders to how that I don’t know something etc).

It is said that 93% of our our language is actually our non verbal communication and only 7% is our spoken words. Each day that I travel across the world I realize the truth of this statement.

4. Patience, patience, patience…..and more patience

If you travel outside of the bigger cities to the small villages be prepared to pack patience with you, because being faced with a language barrier is inevitable. End of story. There is no escaping it, unless you have a full-time translator with or go with a tour group.

In a small village in Romania I had to walk the streets for hours asking people for directions to the right bus station. No matter what gesture I used, no one could seem to understand and communicate with me. There were about 100 buses lined up, no wi-fi, hundreds of people passing by, and not one of them could direct me in the right place. I asked person after person, including the police officers, but I got the same response, “English….no”

After hours of walking around, I finally found someone with a broken level of English that was able to direct me. All the signs were in a different language, and even with her help I was not 100% sure if I was going in the right direction.

In these kinds of situations I have learned to rely on that inner gut feeling that each one of us have to guide me in the right direction.

At first all of this confusion was very frustrating, but then I realized that this is part of the adventure and losing my patience didn’t help with anything. I have to admit, I have been hysterical and in tears in the street due to frustration and being completely lost without a sign of help earlier in my travels. I had to quickly learn that this behavior did not help me to solve my problems any quicker and that sometimes the best move is just to take a deep breath and then take action.

Traveling to countries where your language is not commonly spoken can be scary at first, especially when you are thinking about it from a perspective where you are living in a very comfortable part of the world and you are able to communicate each and every day without an obstacle.

However, if you step out into the world of the unknown and give foreign travel a chance, you will not only be changed, but most likely you will find the kindness and goodness of people from all around the world, who are more than happy to help you in your adventure with patience, love and an open heart.

 

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Sarah - thenomadicdreamer.com4 Tips to Organize & Plan For Travel to Countries You Can’t Communicate