28 NOVEMBER, 2019


When traveling to different countries, one challenge that you might face is having zero knowledge of the language being spoken there. While over 2 billion people speak English,  there are non-English-speaking parts of the world.

Like any challenge in life, however, the language barrier can be overcome.  Below are some tips on how to achieve this:

1. Know the primary language spoken in that country 

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Many countries such as the Philippines and China have regional dialects. For example, The Philippines’ official language is Tagalog, but when you travel to Boracay, the Aklanon language is spoken by the locals. While English is commonly spoken in Boracay, it’s important to know the local dialect, in case you encounter someone who isn’t fluent in English.  

Don’t worry, you don’t need to speak the local language fluently. Rather, you just need to know basic words and phrases you can use to greet locals and ask them questions.

2. Learn important phrases

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When heading to a foreign country, especially those that don’t speak English, it pays to learn important phrases related to location, transportation, and food. Learning phrases, like “Where is the nearest train station or taxi bay?”, “Where is the restroom?”, and “Can you tell me how to get to …” can make the difference between a good and bad trip. 

3. Download a language app 

There are websites that can help you learn certain languages through your smartphone. One such website that many English speakers use to learn another language is Google Translate. This website can translate almost any phrase or sentence (as long as you have Internet access). This can be of great help whenever you encounter mental block when conversing with the locals. 

4. Carry a pocket language dictionary

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While being equipped with a translator app may seem practical in overcoming language barriers, keep in mind that smartphone batteries and power banks can run out of juice. So it’s best to have a pocket language dictionary ready as a back-up. Language dictionaries are also a good way to learn a new language, especially if you’re the type that’s easily distracted when online. 

5. Keep cue cards in your travel bag 

You can keep the most important phrases you think you would need abroad in a set of subtle cue cards inside your bag. Should you forget how to speak a certain phrase, just pull out your cards. 

6. Keep a pen and paper handy  

If all else fails, draw or spell what you want to say with a pen and paper. This can be an option, especially if you're endowed with artistic talent. This is in case you need to write something down to show the locals when asking for directions to places you cannot pronounce.

7. Enroll in a language class  

If your trip abroad is a few months away, consider enrolling in a short language course. Some embassies offer language courses which you can take during weekdays after work or during the weekend. Here in the Philippines, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) offers foreign language courses, like  Nihongo, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic with no tuition required. 

8. Work with pictures

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The phrase “a picture speaks a thousand words” remains relevant to this day. Pictures can also be the key to breaking the language barrier when communicating with locals. Some travelers who can’t speak the language, ask locals questions by providing photos of what they want to ask about. So, keep a few photos on your smartphone; you’ll never know when you’ll need it. If you don’t have photos, you can take advantage of the emojis or emoticons you have on your smartphone keyboard, too. 

9. Learn from the locals 

Learning a language through courses, smartphone apps, and the dictionary is a good start. But to be able to apply what you have learned, it's best to communicate with a native speaker. This will allow you to hear the language in its true form, helping you learn it more effectively. Not only can this improve your communication skills, but it can also help you gain new friendships abroad. 

10. Go beyond the spoken language

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Spoken language isn’t the only communication barrier you should be concerned about when traveling abroad. You should also keep in mind the body language that locals commonly use in communication. A thumbs up in your country may mean “okay” or “good”, but it can be interpreted as vulgar or rude in other countries. So, be mindful and learn basic phrases like “yes,” “no,” and “thank you” in the native language to avoid common traveler mistakes, like offensive body language. 

11. Speak clearly 

 Make sure to speak clearly, to be understood well. Avoid using slang and abbreviations which might hinder the correct understanding of the message. Speak slowly and in a straightforward manner.

12. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification

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The key to learning a new language is to be able to understand it. Misinterpretations and misunderstandings will happen along the way, and that’s okay. In speaking with a native speaker of the language, and you do not get what is being said, don’t hesitate to clarify. People will understand that you’re trying to learn. 

Breaking the language barrier in communicating with locals abroad can help you in many ways. It can also help you, in terms of upgrading your skillset, writing style, vocabulary, and your resume, too! When traveling, you need not worry about effective communication if you know how the locals speak. Learning a language will definitely go a long way.