How to Communicate When You Don’t Know the Language in Asia


Traveling is such a wonderful challenge. One of my favorite things about travel is that it will inevitably force you out of your comfort zone and encourage you to try new things. Being forced out of your comfort zone can be a bit stressful, though.

Traveling around Central America with no Spanish is a recipe for anxiety and frustration, but this is nothing compared to trekking the Himalayas in Nepal or backpacking SE Asia with no handle on the local languages.

Frequent travelers often say that you should know a few words and phrases of the local language to make your trip easier and to keep from offending the locals. This is great advice if we are talking about Spanish, German, or French; but what about Chinese or Thai? Sometimes it simply isn’t feasible to learn the language for your short stay.

So how do you communicate? You will want to interact with the locals, or, at the very least, be able to order food and get directions. Here are a few tips for communicating with people who you think you cannot communicate with:

Gestures. Don’t be embarrassed to act out what you want. Mime that you would like to eat, or point to a place on a map. You would be surprised at how far this can get you.

Pointing. I know it may be rude in some cultures, but point to what you’d like. This is especially helpful when getting food and you can see what you want right in front of you.

Try speaking in English and listening to the local language. I know this sounds crazy, but occasionally it will work. Many languages have cognates, and you may recognize a word or two. You could also get a general idea of what people are attempting to tell you.

Speak slowly. Locals will be more likely to understand you if you speak slower, so don’t rush through your questions.

Pay attention to body language. People like to use their hands while they talk. Try to notice if people are pointing to a specific location. If you are asking about food, try to determine what the person thinks of the item based on their facial expression. This can go a long way.

These sound like very basic tips and I’m sure most people try this already. The best advice I can give is to not raise your voice in English. Speaking loudly will not help people understand.

More importantly, be patient. You are bound to get a few things wrong. You may order a local delicacy that doesn’t appeal to you at all, or you may end up lost in the middle of a foreign city. If that happens, stay calm. You can try to speak to another local or find a bigger restaurant or hotel and see if you can find someone who speaks English or if there is a computer that you can use to translate. If you have a cell phone, try to download an app or gain access to internet where you can translate a few phrases you might need for yourself.

Try to enjoy the journey. You can always try again!


About Author

Samantha is a travel addict and nomadic teacher currently living in Shanghai. Any chance she gets, she is getting off to a new location or explore, either in China or somewhere with a great deal on tickets. Before China, Samantha spent two years in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and two years in Doha, Qatar. During her time abroad she has had the wonderful opportunity to travel all over Central America, central Asia and some of Eastern Europe. As much as Samantha loves to travel, she also makes time to return home to Florida to see her family whenever she can. Her current ambition is to travel to and explore 40 different countries by the time she is forty. Only 12 to go!

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