On She Goes

Working Through Language Barriers While Traveling Abroad

Non-fluent? No Problem.

Becca Ramos
Becca Ramos
July 31, 2017
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Something that’s always made me wary of traveling abroad is the daunting language barrier. How am I supposed to explore a new country if I can’t even communicate with anyone around me? This fear reared its head when I took my first trip as an adult to Puerto Rico. Yes, Puerto Rico is a US territory and if you stay in the touristy areas people will speak to you in English, but that’s no way to explore the country’s culture. Also I had a huge insecurity about being full-blooded Puerto Rican and not speaking a lick of Spanish—I already had enough issues with that stateside. The point is, though, I lived, I learned, and now I’ve got strategies for you to overcome and work through language barriers too!

  • Practice, practice, practice!
    I’m not saying be fluent in the language before you take a trip, but take some time beforehand to familiarize yourself with key words and phrases. There are plenty of resources on the internet to help you, and my favorite app for on-the-go learning is Duolingo.
  • Keep that pocket dictionary
    Having an actual book in addition to Google Translate helps you retain the words you’re looking up in your long-term memory. It also saves you from being stranded if anything were to happen to your phone, like when you’re sitting on the beach and the tide comes in a little too close and your phone happens to get swallowed by the ocean . . . just a thought!
  • Nothing beats pen and paper
    Say you can’t find what you’re looking for in your pocket dictionary and Google Translate isn’t making a ton of sense, so now what do you do? Write or draw out the message you’re trying to convey. Better yet, if you don’t understand what the local is saying, ask them if they can write it down for you. This can be really beneficial when you’re trying to get directions somewhere!
  • Perfection is NOT key
    This is a big one for me. Don’t let the fear of sounding stupid prevent you from talking to locals and interacting with travelers along the way. People appreciate your effort and are more willing to help you if you just try instead of defaulting to English.
  • Take notes
    Simple enough, right? If you learn something about the language and dialect during your travels, jot it down for future reference. This will make communication easier as you meet more people.
  • Don’t be shy!
    Meeting new people is not easy, let alone in a foreign country, but it can be one of the most rewarding parts of traveling. How do you find the best local spots without getting to know some of the locals?
  • Be respectful, always
    Remember, you are a guest in their country. Practice patience when trying to communicate. Think about the words you use and how you use them when speaking to locals.