Apparently there’s a statistic floating around that about 10% of people don’t travel because of the fear of traveling to non native English speaking countries. Not being able to speak and understand the local language at your destination can be daunting and scary. (If you’ve got a trip planned to a non English speaking country or are thinking of taking one I’d love to hear about it in the comments!)
And I get it! I really do.
BUT I don’t get that fear being enough to hold me back from one of my bucket list destinations.
And here’s why.
Having naively traveled the globe for most of my life surviving off English alone, I realized I was young, dumb and seemed to presume that everyone can speak my native language English or at least most people knew some, or there would be at least one person who could help me. Sound familiar?
But as I got older and my love of languages grew and my appreciation for people who can speak multiple tongues grew also, it dawned on me that I should not PRESUME everyone can speak my language because I do and I should take some steps to prepare myself for each of my holidays to come to countries where they are non English speakers.
The first time I landed with zero language prep and had issues was my arrival into Morocco. I had researched for months planning the perfect month long trip away to an exotic location as my first real solo vacation as a young adult.
Fast forward an to an hour after arrival, having found I cannot connect to the local WiFi, dragging my suitcases through the uneven streets looking to find my hotel, then looking to buy a sim card for my phone, getting lost with no street signs, doing some form of charades to strangers, finding my way to a little road stand selling the newspapers and getting abused (in English) by a woman who was disgusted that I could not speak a word of Arabic to save my life. How dare I travel to her country and not know anything in the native language.
Maybe it was because I was tired coming from so many flights in a row, maybe because I was lost in a foreign country or maybe it was a deep inner guilt, but I was hurt and knew from that day onward whenever I traveled I made sure I knew at least the basics of the native language at my destinations. Don’t make my mistake, there’s simple ways to prepare yourself to make your dream holiday a reality.
Here’s how to language prep for any trip abroad to non English speaking countries:
- Learn the basics – For short trips and when you’re on a time constraint knowing only the basics will get you through. I’ve done it and survived multiple times and so can you. I’m talking you, Mr Google and a pen and paper. Searching yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank you, please, help etc. If you want to go a step further knowing the numbers, time and currency will save you dramas. (Bonus tip – Learn a phrase such as – “I’m sorry I don’t speak … do you speak English?” or “Can you help me I don’t speak … well?” It’ll save you in a lot of situations and people seem to be nicer about things if you try)
- Language Apps – I love language apps! They are the funnest and easiest to carry around with you to learn in short bursts of time throughout your busy day. Frequent, short lessons are probably the best to help you retain information. I love Duolingo and Drops. I love learning through games and pictures and you can start learning way before your traveling.
- Language guides and dictionaries – small books that you can carry around with you are great. These lightweight little books of gold may just well save you from getting into trouble or spending too much money (or asking for the wrong food). Lonely Planet have these books in just about every language you can think of. You just look up what you want to say in English and the book will give you the translation.
- Take formal lessons – if you are planning on a longer trip away to a non English speaking country I recommend hiring a tutor. Lessons can get expensive but you’ll be so much more comfortable arriving with the language in tow. There are a thousand ways to find a tutor these days online. Or if you prefer, meet someone in person for regular lessons. The othr option is to sign up at a language school once you arrive at your destination. Learning whilst being immersed in a culture is the fastest way to become fluent.
If all else fails.. How to save your ass when you get stuck:
- Google translate – Other translate apps work fine as well. These have saved me multiple times when someone just has no clue what charades are (I think I’m pretty good at charades but whatever). Also showing pictures of what you want or where you need to get to can help.
- Maps – Paper maps and maps on your phone (which may require internet). If you can locate yourself via satellite you can manage to walk your way to where you need to go. Paper maps are good when you can just point and see if someone can show you how to get there. There’s nothing worse than traveling to non English speaking countries and getting lost!
- Buying a local sim card – It’s cheaper than global roaming and believe it or not most countries I travel to have cheaper and better quality internet services than Australia. You can then call your hotels, tour guides, taxis, whatever you need to do you have a working phone.
There are guaranteed times you will freak out, get frustrated and feel completely lost. Always remember to be kind and smile to the locals. Put yourself in their shoes and be friendly when asking for help and guidance. Follow all of their cultural etiquette and people will be open to assisting you. I have been blown away by the kindness of strangers over and over again traveling to non English speaking countries, who just want you to enjoy time in their beautiful country and go out of their way to help you.
My theory is TAKE THE TRIP! Fear is only created in your mind. Most people are kind enough to help you if you are lost. Just be kind and show gratitude towards strangers.
Have you had any great or horrible experiences traveling to a non English speaking country? Or, are you thinking about taking one soon but are a little scared? Share your tales with me in the comments I love travel stories 😉
Happy wandering x