How to Communicate While Traveling Even Without Language Skills

by Julia on March 11, 2019


Are you afraid that without language skills you won’t be able to communicate while traveling? Then read these four tricks for aspiring travelers.

Communication on the Road: It Works Without Words

Would you like to travel to a country where you do not understand the language? Are you afraid of not being able to communicate? Not a problem! Not many travelers can speak the language of the locals. We have put together a few tricks that make communication work even at the bottom of the world.

Imagine: you go to Peru and Bolivia for five weeks. You really want to see the Inca city of Machu Pichu, fly over the Nasca lines, and chug it across Lake Titikaka. The closer the departure is, the more anxiety you get before the trip. A scenario that keeps popping up in your mind looks like this:

Somewhere in the highlands of the Altiplano, you slump on a chair. The stomach growls audibly and even drowns out the television, which flickers in the other corner at full volume. Again and again, a truck drives over the dusty track, which you also came here in a 24-hour marathon ride. Tired, you wave the waitress. She throws you a welded plastic menu. Damn, all in Spanish! You do not understand a word because you used a custom writing service for your Spanish class. It could only have been worse in China, where you would not even have been able to look up anything in the dictionary.

In the course of travels, you’ll realize that the concern like that is entirely unfounded. So far, we have been able to penetrate everywhere, even in China. In this post, we would like to describe our experiences with the topic of communication during trips. This entry is intended for beginners and should help budding world travelers overcome any fears. So if you’ve traveled around the globe several times, this article is probably not for you!

Trick 1: Learn to communicate with your body

This trick sounds a bit banal at first, but you will be surprised how far you can get with the sign language. Nevertheless, you should inform yourself (for example in the affiliated travel forum) about any differences in signs before the trip. You’ll be surprised at what can be different.

In Bulgaria and Greece, for example, the gestures for “yes” and “no” are exactly the opposite: so if a Bulgarian man answers you with a nod when asked if he wants another glass of wine, he most likely will not drink. Or, if you order two beers at a bar in China and use your fingers to make our gesture for “two,” chances are good that you will be served eight glasses. In China, the hand signs differed for the numbers.

Trick 2: Take a notebook with you

When traveling in regions where you suspect that you cannot make ends meet with English, you should always have a small notebook and a pen with you. Not only is it convenient to keep track of when the next bus leaves, but it also helps with communication while traveling. When you need something, you can just draw it on a sheet, and it’s clear to your counterpart what you want.

But sometimes that’s not the best option if your drawing skills leave much to be desired. Every time nobody recognizes what you wanted to skate on the sheet, you will regret not having the Wordless Travel Book. On washable, thick cardboard pages there are hundreds of pictures, which were specially selected for globetrotters.

The concept of this picture book is as simple as it is ingenious. Example: you want to know when the next bus leaves. So first you point at the bus and then at the clock. Your foreign interlocutor understands you and stretches out three fingers. Now I know: you have to wait until three o’clock, and in the meantime, you can have a leisurely lunch. And there are suddenly no more problems: you had to go to the kitchen before pointing at the desired ingredients, but it is now enough to tap them in the dictionary. For example, tomatoes and eggs make a delicious omelet in Inner Mongolia.

Trick 3: Try to learn the language a bit

Of course, for a two-week trip through Japan, you cannot go to an evening school for two years. Because that’s how much you’d probably need to attend it to be able to communicate somewhat fluently in the country. But not all languages are that hard.

Spanish for example. If you had Latin at school, or you have learned French, you should be able to have simple conversations relatively quickly. For instance, if you have enough time and go on a world tour, you can start by learning Spanish for a month in the beginning. Another option is to buy a simple phrasebook.

If you are more interested in learning with digital products, you can try out Babbel. It is an online language course where you can discover 14 different languages through a website or mobile app. There isn’t a lot of grammar (one of the greatest advantages of Babbel). You can buy monthly subscriptions. So after a month or two, if you realize that’s not the right way to learn for you, then you’re not losing much money. The subscription currently costs just under $13 per month.

Trick 4: Get to know locals who speak your language

In some situations, when you cannot communicate in, for example, China, you might consider having local acquaintances who can help you with a translation in an emergency. (Tip: If you’re in countries with other typefaces, make sure your phone can display them as well.) Depending on how shy you are, it may make sense to try making friends among locals in advance.

One possibility is to use the Couchsurfing platform or another friend-finding network. You do not necessarily have to spend time with someone — you can only look for people who are willing to have a drink with you. If you have their phone number, you can call these people in a language emergency and ask for help. As long as you do not overdo it, most couch surfers will be happy to help you.

If you’re not so active on couch surfing platforms, you can mainly use penpals websites. When it comes to China, you can also try their app WeChat. Weixin, as the mobile application in Chinese, has a function with which you can get to know other people within a 10-kilometer radius from your location. Although WeChat is especially widespread in China, it is also common in many other Asian countries.


You do not need to be afraid of being in an environment where you do not speak the language. But it makes sense to prepare for such a journey in any case — whether by taking a language course or trying to acquire at least basic knowledge with phrasebooks. For emergencies, it’s always good to know someone you can call and ask for a translation.

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