For newbie travellers, and especially for solo travellers, there is often a concern about being able to communicate with the locals at our destination. We worry that we will be unable to manage simple things like ordering food or giving instructions to a driver. We're concerned that our inability to speak the language may put us in dodgy situations where we would have difficulty seeking assistance. These are valid concerns and it is wise to gather resources and develop strategies. For many years I travelled as a uni-lingual person. Sometimes I was lucky to have my brilliant polyglot ATB along, other times I was on my own. I didn't begin learning languages until after I retired and have since wondered why I waited (I know... I didn't have time!). I have managed a lifetime of travel only speaking English and you can, too!
If you only speak English and you are planning a trip, there are still many places that you can visit where English is widely spoken. Beyond North America, countries in Western Europe, such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands, either use English as their official language or as a widely-spoken second language.
First, to put most travellers' minds at ease; you will find most people outside of North America speak at least two languages. In (most) tourist areas, English will be spoken at some level of proficiency. English is the #1 Travel Language around the globe. Many young people have learned English in school and are highly motivated by social media, entertainment, and employment to practice. A general rule is that English is more likely to be spoken in tourist areas and larger population centers.
That being said, it is always a good idea to do some research on the destination you are planning to visit to see what the language situation is like. Even if English is not the primary language, there may still be many people who speak it, particularly in tourist areas or in larger cities. It can also be helpful to learn a few basic phrases in the local language, as a gesture of respect and as a way to communicate with people who may not speak English.
Free Translation Apps
There will be times when you are going to have to communicate with people who do not speak English...after all, it isn't their community language! A good ol' fashioned phrase book can do the trick but for those of us striving to reduce our luggage to the bare minimum, we look to our technology for help.
There are many translation apps that can be useful for travellers who only speak English. If you download the language dictionary with the app it can be used offline. Don't forget to install the keyboard for the local alphabet on your phone if you anticipate wanting others to type their responses.
Not all apps work well for all languages. I am very careful to use the best one depending on the country. Google Translate does NOT work as well for languages that are not Latin script! I hoping some readers will suggest apps that they have used successfully for those languages,
Google Translate: This app is available for both iOS and Android, and it offers translation for over 100 languages, more than either of its biggest competitors. When I upgraded my phone to the Google Pixel Pro, it came pre-loaded. Google Translate can also be used on a browser. It can translate text, images, and spoken words, plus it offers conversation mode translations, which allows you to have a conversation with someone in another language by speaking into your phone. I'm a Google fan, so this is the app I use most often.
Microsoft Translator: This app is available for both iOS and Android, and it offers translation for over 60 languages. It can translate text, images, and spoken words, and also has the conversation mode feature.
iTranslate: This app is available for both iOS and Android, and it offers translation for over 100 languages. It is usually pre-loaded on iPhones. It can also be used to translate text, images, and spoken words, and also has the conversation mode feature. It includes a handy feature called "Phrasebook," which allows you to save frequently used phrases or sentence stems for easy reference.
Keep in mind that while these apps can be helpful and are constantly improving, don't rely upon them for perfectly accurate translations. Use them as a tool to help facilitate communication, rather than relying on them completely.
Language Learning Apps
There are many free language learning apps that you can use to learn the basics of many languages. Choose the app or combination of apps to learn a few simple words and phrases (hello, goodbye, thank you, can you help me, how much, water, coffee, toilets, etc). I always learn what I call the “polite words”. These always open many doors for me because people are delighted that I made the effort and go out of their way to help. Your efforts (even if your pronunciation is awful) will be appreciated.
Even if you complete an entire online course, you will not be fluent but you will be able to competently but simplistically express basic ideas. After a few weeks, you should be able to manage simple greetings and requests. Whether you choose to start learning long before choosing a destination or shortly before departure, these apps will allow you to learn some important basics. The three that I have used are listed below:
Duolingo: This app offers lessons in a variety of languages, including Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Arabic and many more. The lessons are interactive and gamified, making them fun and engaging. Duolingo tends to build vocabulary and phrases quickly but is often sparse with grammatical and structural explanations. For me, it is a great way to learn "tourist" level language fairly quickly by using stock phrases.
On the free mobile version failed lessons cost a "heart" which can limit practice time. The free browser version doesn't have this and learning sessions last as long as the user desires.
The paid version does provides more practice and explanations but the free version will give you access to almost every lesson. Upon completion of their courses, you would likely be considered at a low "intermediate" level of language learning.
Babbel: This app offers language lessons in a variety of languages, including Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Indonesian amongst many others. It uses a combination of text, audio, and visual aids to help you learn. Babbel gives me the tips and explanations that I need to be able to construct more complicated conversation but moves at a slower pace as it builds greater understanding. I also really like how the language lessons also explain different vocabulary, pronunciations and cultural norms for the various nations that speak the same language. The "listening" lessons are focused on understanding and using speech rather than reading and writing skills.
The free version is limited. Subscriptions are available for different lengths of time (6 months, a year) for a single language or the more expensive lifetime subscription which allow you to learn as many languages as you want for as long as the site is functioning. If you are considering the lifetime subscription, wait for one of the regular sales to get 50-75% off.
Memrise: This app uses a combination of flashcards and games to help you learn new words and phrases in a variety of languages. It also includes audio recordings by native speakers to help with pronunciation.
I'm less fond of this site and find the interface unappealing. I use it fairly infrequently but choose it for quick practice sessions. It doesn't really work for my learning style but as a teacher, I recognize the approach is pedagogically sound.
Write down Important Information
I have discovered that my lack of linguistic skills have often led to mispronunciations of street or even landmark names. It often helps desk clerks to hand over my personal "business" card at registration. This strategy can be especially helpful for communicating simple things like my name, address , and email. Writing the name of the business, address, or landmark can resolve misunderstandings due to poor pronunciation. Having things written down can ease all sorts of confusion. Grab a business card from your lodgings before heading out; screen grab the names and addresses of places in the local language.
When all else fails, a good game of charades works too. Even if you can't speak the language, you can still use body language and gestures to communicate with people. For example, indicating the item you want to buy or shaking your head to indicate "no" can be helpful in certain situations. I have an allergy to eggs (a favourite ingredient in many cultures) -- my go-to is to learn how to say the local word for egg as I grab my throat while making a ridiculous "I'm dying" face. It has never failed me.
Finally, be patient and polite. As a guest in their country, it is up to us to make the effort. The vast majority of people are kind and want to be helpful. Smile, don't be afraid to ask for help and be generous with your gratitude.
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