Smile, Be Patient & Be Open 

A picture paints a thousand words – as does a smile. 

The first step to a positive reception from locals is showing positivity & openess. In stressful and confusing situations, don’t forget that locals who don’t know English can be just as stressed & confused as you are. Sometimes all you need is a smile and some patience and the problem will soon solve itself. 

Brush Up on Some Vocabulary 

In many languages, the 100 most used words make up about 50% of conversation so if you’re up for a challenge try to memorise those words and your trip will be miles easier if you don’t know the local language.

If you don’t have the time for this, there are a few words and phrases that will really help you out in a foreign country. Learn how to say:

  • Hello, please, thank you, yes, no, excuse me/sorry, goodbye
  • Numbers (For making purchases, finding addresess etc.)
  • Common Foods (Water, Bread, Spicy, Noodles, Rice, Chicken, Vegetable, Vegetarian for example)
  • Any allergies or intolerances you have

Knowing just a few words is incredibly helpful and can also gain you some brownie points with locals. Just a little effort goes a long way.

Invest in Local Language Classes

If you’re on a longer term trip, taking local language classes will prepare you for local life. In most places popular with backpackers & travellers, locals offer various types of affordable local language classes. Whether you want a basic group classes in India or one-on-one intensive coaching in Thailand – there’s ways you can learn the language while investing in local people.

Utilise Non-Verbal Cues

Sometimes you’ll need to rely on some good old-fashioned pointing & miming! Don’t be shy if you’re really stuck with finding the words. Clarify directions with clear arm movements, mime the cooking of the dish you’re looking for – most locals will quickly catch on that there’s a language barrier! Carry a small notebook & pen; you can ask locals to draw you directions or translate via sketch.

Use Technology to Overcome Language Barriers

There’s tons of apps available for on-the-fly translations. If you won’t have mobile data, find apps that work offline or prepare by downloading necessary offline data. Some can translate writing using your camera, great for reading signs/menus/directions.

Woman using smartphone

Learn About Local Customs 

Different countries not only have different verbal language but also different body language. The Indian head wobble, for example, is a positive gesture often meaning ‘welcome’ ‘yes’ ‘no problem’ but at to an unexperienced traveller it can be interpreted as a negative shaking of the head. Another custom that is quite strictly adhered to in many countries is the removal of shoes before entering a building or religious area. 

Make sure you familiarise yourself with local ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ of the country you are headed to. Ensure you aren’t doing anything rude or offensive and hopefully you’ll save yourself from some tense situations! 


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