How to Travel Abroad Without Knowing the Local Language

by | Jul 31, 2023 | Language

You’re planning an amazing trip abroad, but there’s just one catch – you don’t speak the local language! Even while it could appear frightening, don’t allow fear keep you from experiencing the adventure of a lifetime.

Even if you don’t speak the language well, you may still have a fantastic time abroad with the appropriate mindset and preparation.

I’ll go over all you need to know to navigate the city easily, mingle with the locals, and take in all the incredible sights, sounds, and sensations – despite the language barrier.

With these tips, you’ll be equipped for an unforgettable international adventure!


    • Getting Around Major Cities is Totally Doable
    • Use Tools and Technology to Assist Communication
    • Master Just a Few Key Phrases
    • Pay Attention to Nonverbal Cues
    • Immerse Yourself in the Vibe
    • Still, Learn a Little Bit if You Can
    • Don’t Stress About Grammar
    • Top Cities Where You Can Get By With Mostly English
    • Top Translation Apps for Travelers
    • Tips for Smooth Travel Without the Knowledge of Local Language

Getting Around Major Cities is Totally Doable

Many top travel destinations have major metropolitan areas where enough locals speak English to help you get by. Large, cosmopolitan cities that see a lot of international tourists will almost always have some English speakers.

Girl Traveling Abroad With Suitcase

If you stick to big, well-touristed cities, you can generally find someone who speaks at least basic English when you need assistance.

Don’t be shy about asking “Do you speak English?” – you may be pleasantly surprised by how often you’ll hear “Yes, a little!”

Within major cities, tourist sites like museums and historical attractions will have English audio tours and translated signs and brochures available.

Public transit systems will have stop names, directions, and maps in English. So getting around and seeing the major sights will be very manageable without fluency in the local tongue.

Use Tools and Technology to Assist Communication

While English will get you through a lot, learning just a few phrases in the local language shows good intentions. Luckily, technology makes on-the-go translation a breeze:

  • Translation apps: Google Translate, iTranslate, SayHi and others allow you to speak into your phone and translate conversations instantly. Amazing!
  • Offline translation pens: These handy devices let you scan and translate text on the fly, without WiFi. High-tech!
  • Phrasebooks: Paper or phone apps like uTalk have essential restaurant, directional, and shopping vocab.
  • Visual aids: Writing or drawing out what you need to communicate goes a long way. Carry a small notepad and pen.
  • Pointing, gesturing: Use your hands and body language to mime what you mean. This helps immensely with interactions like asking for directions

Travel Tools & Apps For Language Learners

With these tools, plus liberal pointing and miming, you can get your message across! The locals you encounter will be impressed and gratified you’re making an effort.

Master Just a Few Key Phrases

You certainly don’t need conversational fluency. But learning a small handful of essential phrases in the local language shows good intentions.

Some must know key phrases:

  • Hello/Goodbye: Ciao/Arrivederci (Italian), Hola/Adios (Spanish), Bonjour/Au revoir (French)
  • Thank You: Grazie (Italian), Gracias (Spanish), Merci (French)
  • Excuse Me: Scusi (Italian), Perdón (Spanish), Pardon (French)
  • Please: Per favore (Italian), Por favor (Spanish), S’il vous plaît (French)
  • Do you speak English? Parli inglese? (Italian), ¿Habla inglés? (Spanish), Parlez-vous anglais ? (French)

Nailing down these basic pleasantries and questions will serve you well in restaurants, hotels, shops, and public places. Locals will appreciate the effort!

Pay Attention to Nonverbal Cues

Using Gesture to Communicate

You can actually get pretty far just by paying attention to nonverbal signals:

  • Facial expressions: Smile, laugh, frown, look puzzled – your face conveys a lot!
  • Gestures: Point, mime, use hand motions. This helps immensely with things like asking for directions.
  • Tone of voice: Speak softly, quickly, sound concerned. Vocal tones provide emotional cues.
  • Body language: Face someone, nod along, lean in to show interest and engagement.
  • Contextual clues: Note what’s happening around you for clues to meaning. If you’re staring confused at a transit map, someone will likely stop to help!

Stay aware of these cues when interacting with locals. And remember, they’re picking up on YOUR nonverbal signals too!

Immerse Yourself in the Vibe

Connect with locals when traveling

The joy of travel is soaking up the feel of a new place. You can immerse yourself in local sights, sounds, food, and culture without speaking the language.

  • Indulge in the food! Point to order at restaurants or use a translated menu.
  • Wander colorful outdoor markets and interact with smiling vendors.
  • People watch at a local cafe or park – relax and take in the scene.
  • See historic and cultural sites – audio tours in English are often available.
  • Ride public transportation and feel the rhythm of the city.
  • If invited, accept hospitality from locals! Openness can lead to great connections.
  • Check out festivals and open air concerts where language takes a backseat to music and fun.
  • Stroll lively neighborhoods and city squares – they often have an international vibe.

The more you explore and engage based on vibe rather than conversation, the more comfortable and free you’ll feel!

Still, Learn a Little Bit if You Can

While fluency certainly isn’t required, learning a small amount of the local language can really enrich your experience:

  • Use fun apps like Duolingo or Busuu to pick up the basics.
  • Take an intro class or get a phrasebook and study on plane/train rides before and during your trip.
  • Listen to podcasts about the language to train your ear.
  • Ask locals politely to teach you a few common phrases. They’ll appreciate it!
  • Pay attention when you hear the language spoken around you – context helps you decipher meaning.

Don’t stress about grammar or building vocabulary.

Just learn essential words and phrases like “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” “thank you,” “bathroom,” “check please,” numbers, “do you speak English?,” etc.

Locals will be delighted and grateful you made an effort to learn just the basics. And you’ll pick up a lot just by immersing yourself once you’re there!

Top Cities Where You Can Get By With Mostly English

Top cities to travel by speaking English

Here are some top international destinations where sticking to major metropolitan areas means you’ll encounter plenty of English:

  • Paris, France
  • Barcelona, Spain
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Rome, Italy
  • Bangkok, Thailand
  • Singapore
  • Dubai, UAE
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Stockholm, Sweden
  • Oslo, Norway

Focus on these cosmopolitan, internationally-minded cities and you’ll find English assistance when you need it!

Top Translation Apps for Travelers

Thanks to technology, we have translating power in our pockets. These are some of the top apps for instant translation help:

  • Google Translate – Recognizes over 100 languages, even translates handwritten text you point your camera at.
  • iTranslate – Allows you to download language packs for offline use anywhere without WiFi.
  • SayHi – Designed for two-way conversations, with a listen mode and speak mode.
  • TripLingo – Provides essential travel vocab and phrases organized by situation.
  • Microsoft Translator – Translates voice, images, and texts quickly. Works offline.

Having one of these apps on your phone means you have an instant interpreter always ready to help!

Tips for Smooth Travel Without the Knowledge of Local Language

Here are some of my top tips for ensuring you have amazing travels even without knowing the local lingo:

  • Stay flexible! Travel snafus are part of the journey. Greet mishaps with patience and humor.
  • Smile warmly at locals you interact with – it transcends language and puts people at ease.
  • Don’t be afraid to just point or mime what you need. It often works better than speaking!
  • Carry a written guide to your food restrictions/allergies to show at restaurants.
  • Learn a few polite phrases in the local language – locals will appreciate it immensely.
  • Use contextual clues around you to figure out meaning from situations.
  • Relax and remember that you don’t need to understand every word to enjoy the spirit of a place.
  • Immerse yourself in sites and experiences that don’t rely on language, like live music and outdoor markets.
  • Make use of hand gestures and body language to communicate.
  • Pay attention to people’s tone of voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Focus on openness, flexibility and making connections – you don’t need fluency to gain rich experiences traveling in foreign cultures. With the right attitude and preparation, the world is yours to explore and enjoy!

I hope these tips give you the confidence to plan an amazing international trip, even if you don’t speak the language. Don’t let language be a barrier – just equip yourself with the right tools and mindset.

The locals you encounter will be happy to help you once they see you’re being open and making an effort.

Safe travels! With an adventurous spirit, patience, and resourcefulness, you’ll have the trip of a lifetime no matter what language is spoken.

The world is waiting for you.