In the globalized world that we are living in, every time we are trying more and more to scape the tourist hubs. Finding a genuine traditional place where the amount of visitors didn’t change the rituals and the way of living of the local community.
Sounds familiar? I’m pretty sure you also experienced in the so called ‘out of the beaten path destinations’, that people are not able to speak English or the level is very basic.
I’m sure people already recommended you to learn the basics vocabulary. Great idea! It’s a very good way to start a conversation. Say “Good morning!” in the local language and you will automatically get the attention of people. However, if your lever is basic most probably, you won’t be able to understand the answer. Imagine you are traveling for several months into several countries that have totally different languages. It’s pretty difficult to get a basic level where you can understand the replies.
Don’t worry, here we bring you several tips to overcome this problem. Suggestions that will help you to succeed interacting with the natives either to get to know them or just ask for help.
1- Be polite
You are the one who is looking for something – so be polite. Approach people in a calm way, smiling, looking directly to their eyes and saying something like “Good morning, would you have a minute to…”.
If the person do not understand you, don’t scream or repeat the same sentences over and over again. Try to use synonyms, explain the things in a different way or put examples.
Don’t laugh at peoples accent or correct their pronunciation. Remember, they are trying to help you so do your best to understand what they are trying to say.
2- Use your body language
Body language is very powerful. There are international signs that are the same or quite similar all around the world.
Smiling is always considered a friendly sign.
Knocking the head up and down is a sign of gratitude.
Blinking an eye means complicity.
Rubbing your thumb and index finger means how much?
Touching your belly indicates that you are hungry.
Put your hands together next to your face to show that you are tired or want to sleep.
Use your hand as if it was a telephone and place it between your ear and mouth if you want to call.
If you want someone to stop, straighten your arm with the hand open or cross your hand.
Point to something that you are interested to draw the attention to it.
In most of the countries you can count with the hands. It’s a very easy and powerful way of asking for quantities.
3- Use objects to support your questions
Visual items are a great help to enhance your words.
Emojis are understood universally and you can find everything that you need. Don’t be afraid to draw or use your phone to show them.
If you are looking for a place, show a map. Alternatively, if it’s a touristic attraction, you can show a picture of the monument, beach or view point.
If you are taking a taxi write down or make a screen shot in your phone of the address in the local language.
If you heard about an awesome restaurant but you don’t find it you can show the website.
If you are looking for a supermarket or a company, a picture with the logo can help.
Drawing is also one of the best ways of interacting with people who do not speak the same language as you.
You can buy t-shirts with the logo of almost everything you need while traveling. See below some options in Amazon:
4- Use easy words
Be aware that not everybody has a good level of English. However, these days in most of the countries English is studied. There is a high chance that the person knows some basic English. Try to use basic words and easy sentences. If you know some local words feel free to use them combined with English. Sometimes that helps.
5- Use translators
Nearly everybody has a phone and there are few places without internet. You can download google translate and the languages that you need. I would suggest that you download your mother tong, English and the native language of the country you are traveling in. As this is downloaded to your phone, you can use it offline. This is very efficient and works most of the times.
If you have internet you can use other services like DeepL or the speech translator functionality from google translate.
Notice that these automatic translations are not always 100% accurate but it is enough for most of the times.
Alternatively, some tourist guides provide translations of useful words and sentences. Dictionaries can also be used, but they are much more inconvenient than the previous methods.
6- Don’t ask leading questions
Leading questions are the questions where the person asking is suggesting possibilities.
An example would be “Is the train coming at 9AM or 9:15AM?”
If the person do not understand the question, he/she will say one of the two options but you cannot be genuine sure that the answer is correct. We could rephrase the question to “At what time is the train coming?”
It’s even worse when the question can be answered by yes/no. Most of the people that do not understand the question “Is the train station opening at 8AM?” will say yes. Humans tend to use affirmative answers when they don’t understand questions. Often this will stop the conversation.
7- Target the right people
Imagine you are in your country and you need help. Probably you won’t try it with a group of teenagers that are drinking on the street. Same applies when you are abroad but probably with even less possibilities. People over 50 may not have learned English while studying and young people may not be interested in helping you out. As a rule, I try to find someone around his mid-late twenties who looks clean, educated and not in a rush.
If you cannot find anyone who is able to understand you, you can go to tourist offices, 5 star hotels, police stations, hospitals, banks or governmental places.
8- Time-box your interaction
If you need assistance, after the first 3min speaking with someone you will already realize if it works or not.
There are people who do not feel comfortable speaking a foreign language. You will see in their body language that they look away, they have their arms crossed, they are distant or not focused on what you say.
On the contrary, they want to help so badly that they will try their best even if they do not have a clue of what you are looking for. Unfortunately, you will try and try but you will not get the answer you are looking for.
Don’t waste your time and the other time. Once you realize it will not work, say politely “Thank you very much for your help”, smile and leave in a friendly manner.
There is plenty of people who are willing and can help you. You just need to find the right one.
Here are some personal examples where I failed communicating and what I did to improve it.
Lost in the Netherlands/Belgium.
I was 18/19, my 1st trip out of my country with friends, no adult controlling us. We were very exited.
We were in the Netherlands where a friend had relatives. My cousin was living in Belgium so we decided to visit her too.
The family of my friend gave us a ride to a village next to Belgium where we were supposed to meet my cousin. Something went wrong. I still don’t know what but we ended up in an empty village, waiting for several hours and my cousin didn’t arrive. Our phones didn’t work abroad and we were totally alone and desperate.
We saw a woman getting out of her house after we have been a couple of hours totally lost. I run to her asking for help. My English was very poor so I told her something like “we lost, your phone, call”. As you can imagine, she was totally freaking out, scared of that young boy running, screaming for help and asking for her phone.
Now when I think about it, I would understand that the woman felt intimidated and probably worried that I wanted to steal her phone… However, she passed though all these feeling and kept listening to me while I tried to explain the situation.
Finally, she borrowed us her phone and we could call my cousin. She was waiting in a village several km away. Thanks to that phone call, she manage to find us before it was completely dark.
Nowadays, I try to approach people in a calm way, smiling, doing eye contact and saying ‘Hi’ in their local language. I take my time to explain what I want. I talk slow and don’t rush. I do breaks during the explanations to let the person assimilate what I’m saying. Also, this gives me time to check their body language. In most of the cases, you can identify if the person is understanding what you said or it’s already lost. While doing these small pauses, if you detect that the person is getting lost and you can repeat the last points in some other words.
My first time in China travelling solo.
It was my first stop on my first attempt to a world trip. I decided to take a gap year and travel through Southeast Asia, Oceania and depending on the money left, South America all of it, totally solo.
I was in a train station with the intention to buy my next train ticket. There were long queues and not a single sign in English.
Finally, it was my turn in the counter. I told the girl “Hi, good evening. I want to buy a ticket to X for tomorrow at X time.”. She looked at me as I was a martian. I smiled and ask again “Train to X? Tomorrow? Price?”. Her expression didn’t change a bit and her mouth said “No English, no English”.
I was surprise, I didn’t expect that and I blocked for some seconds. My mind was trying to find a solution, how can I tell her what I want if she does not speak English?.
Her next words were something in Chinese that I could not understand but it triggered a reaction on the people of the queue. The guy behind me push me away and ask for his ticket. I look at the counter girl and told her “Excuse me, it was my turn”. No reaction, people totally ignored me, left aside of the queue where no-one was willing to let my try again.
I remained there for some minutes, thinking about what to do and analyzing how the locals where doing it. I didn’t know what to do, I was scared and I decided to leave the station… Just on the door I though to myself, NO!, I need to buy the ticket. I don’t want to be stuck here. It was my decision to travel solo so I need to find my way to do it.
I got back to the queue again and wait 15-20min for my turn. I approached her again. She was not willing to spend a single second. I asked politely for my train ticket but she called the next person in the queue. I blocked the space, smiled and told her “Excuse me, I want to buy the train ticket and I’m not going to move from her until I have it”.
I asked again trying to use very simple English words. She kept calling the next person in the queue, I kept blocking the counter and got out my phone to write down what I wanted. There were hands trying to get to the counter everywhere. I turned and toled people behind me “I’m trying to buy a ticket please stop pushing”. No reactions, people kept pushing and trying to remove me from the queue…
I wrote down what I wanted, something like “Train Xi’an XX.XX.2014 21:00”. She still does not understand or want to understand. I open maps me and look for the city X in the map. I show it to her. She realize that I want to go there (the map had the Chinese characters for the city).
It was already about 5-10min that I was trying to communicate with her when a manager came and told me “Hi Sr. go to counter Y, someone who can speak English will attend you there”. I followed the instructions, to be honest, a bit sceptical. Some minutes later the counter was open an a girl how could speak some words in English was trying to understand what I wanted. I showed her the map with the location, the calendar with the date and time and used my body language to say that I wanted to have a sleeping place. We could barely communicate but she tried her best. Finally, she showed me her computer screen where I could see the time of the journey, price, etc. Everything was in Chinese, I did not understand anything. The numbers and dates looked correct and the Chinese characters of the location were quite similar to the ones in maps me. I took a leap of faith and bought the ticket. I smiled and thanked her several times for all the efforts she made for me. I left the station very tired but quite proud of myself.
I learned a lot that day. I realized that I needed to be more perseverant and much better prepared. I didn’t want this to happen again. I was not willing to spend again nearly 2h to buy a simple train ticket. After that, I always went to the train station with a screenshot of the place I wanted to go that contained Chinese characters, the date and time written down and I learned how to ask for a top sleeper. At the beginning by showing with the hand that I wanted to sleep and pointing with the finder up and after by pointing to previous tickets where it was saying top sleeper. After 2 months traveling around china I was able to buy my train tickets in 5 minutes.