Tips to Tackle Language Barriers Abroad

Tips to Tackle Language Barriers Abroad

Are you planning a holiday abroad this year but don’t speak the local language? You’re not alone.

Most people don’t really think about the potential implications of a language barrier when they pack their suitcases for warmer shores.

Whether you’re heading off with your girlfriends or the family to countries closer to the UK borders, or adventuring into completely unknown territory, it’s worth bearing in mind that despite common misconceptions that most people overseas speak English - 82 per cent of the world’s population don’t!  So, the chances of encountering a language barrier whilst travelling overseas are reasonably high. 

Being able to communicate in another language could prove pretty useful should you get lost and need directions or want to get a more ‘cultural flavour’ of your destination by visiting more rural, local restaurants where the menu is not written in English, for example. Of course in an emergency situation, an immediate conversation in the given language could become vital.

Despite the idea that it would probably be quite cool to be able to chat to locals in their language while on holiday (just think of all the potential summer romances and new friends you might make - not to mention all of the tips and local advice on the best places to go) the great British public are notoriously laid back when it comes to learning foreign languages. 

Avoid being confused by local language and prepare before you travel

We always think we can get by on a wing and a prayer and fingers crossed we’ll pick up a few local words and phrases along the way - somehow we’ll muddle along. Sound familiar? 

This of course is the case for most of us and providing we don’t find ourselves in any tricky situations, the good old phrase book can help us order a glass of wine, find out where the nearest beach is and decipher the odd word or two. 

On the other hand, if you find yourself needing to have a vital conversation with someone who doesn’t speak English, it’s a different story entirely. At that point, there is little a phrase book can do to help you to communicate.

The language barrier could become an issue should you want to negotiate a good hotel rate, or ask a local for directions having wandered into unknown territory for example; of course, in an emergency situation it becomes that much more of an issue for different reasons. 

Common scenarios where you or your friends/family might come up against a language barrier are: visiting a more rural local restaurant or location, attending a local festival/event, car trouble/breakdown/car hire, visiting a pharmacy or falling ill, having an accident and becoming injured - then finding yourself in need of medical attention from a foreign hospital (particularly true of families with young children who can easily be affected by the change in climate/water).

You might get bitten by a poisonous insect, lose your passport, fall victim to an attack or theft and need to communicate with a police officer or other authorities; perhaps you might misunderstand/offend a local culture or unwittingly break the law? 

Reading signs will help abroad

All of these are plausible scenarios when on holiday in another country and should any of these happen to you, being able to communicate in the local language could suddenly become rather important.

To avoid finding yourself confused in China, bewildered in Belgium, panicked in Poland, or tongue-tied in Tibet, here are a few tips from personal telephone interpreting service, i-interpret4u to help those keen on overseas travel to become more aware of the issues associated with language barriers abroad.

The dos and don’ts:

1. Avoid the ‘Basil Fawlty’ approach: don’t shout loudly at locals in a slow-paced voice - it may come across as insulting, after all, they aren’t deaf, they just don’t understand the language.

2. Waving your arms won’t help: if you find yourself in a situation where you’re unable to communicate, don’t panic and wave your arms in a frenzy to be understood (this won’t help the situation and you’re more likely to confuse locals or warn them away).

Instead, try to find someone who speaks a little English, if you can’t, try drawing pictures to communicate or use a telephone interpreting service to get your conversation interpreted if possible.

3. Watch out for the false friend: accidently using a word in English that has a completely different meaning in another language but sounds similar is known as a ‘false friend’.

This is a common mistake made by many people when they attempt to communicate in other languages - but if you happen to use the wrong word it could leave you a bit red-faced or indeed knee-deep in ‘hot water’ depending on the context.

These scenarios also tend to happen by coincidence, so there is no strategic way of identifying them. Indeed, the consequences of a misunderstood conversation will also differ greatly from country to country and from person to person. 

But one thing is for sure, you might get more than you bargained for if you find yourself in Norway ordering a coffee in a mugg as this means mouldy or mildew, or if you ask for a full cup, because that means drunk.

4. Pretending you understand is pointless: did you know that a recent survey polling 1300 Brits found that one third of us nod and pretend we understand locals abroad even when we don’t.  If you don’t understand, it’s pointless pretending you do because you won’t help yourself and also you’ll never know what you might have just agreed to!

5. Don’t use slang, jargon and abbreviations ‘Raining like cats and dogs’: it might make perfect sense to us English-speaking folk, but analyse the phrase a bit more and it’s completely bizarre (since cats and dogs don’t usually fall from the sky like rain) - so you can probably imagine how idioms like this could leave locals who don’t speak English in a state of confusion. 

The situation is the same for us because many countries have their own idioms (that even the more fluent language speaker may struggle to comprehend). 

So if someone in Russia says they’re ‘not hanging noodles in your ears’ (meaning not kidding), or someone from Germany says ‘to live like a maggot in bacon’ (live in luxury) or if you’re Spanish you might say ‘give it to someone with cheese (which means to deceive - of course), you could find yourself in a bit of a quandary!

6. Do your research: it sounds obvious, but always do a bit of ground research before visiting a new country. Check out local customs, laws and cultural differences. That way you can be prepared and avoid situations that might lead to a problem where a language barrier might stand in your way.

Remember the more prepared you are for any eventuality before you leave the UK, the easier it will be to cope with a difficult situation should one present itself abroad.

7. Don’t assume everyone speaks English: probably the most important tip of all. Never assume that someone will be able to speak English. Why would they?

In many tourist areas across European cities, English may well be more commonly spoken, but you’ve only to venture 10 minutes out of a tourist destination to more local residential areas, pharmacies and hospitals to find a very different environment.

i-interpret4u provides an easy to use, personal telephone interpreting service for those facing a language barrier whilst living, travelling or doing business overseas. For more information, visit www.i-interpret4u.co.uk

FemaleFirst @FemaleFirst_UK



  1. by Bob Hobson 21st Apr 2013 15:01

    Great tips. It's so difficult when communication is a problem. I would like to add one more general travel tip that saved my last trip to Rome from total disaster. I lost my passport during the day but had no idea it was missing. Fortunately, I had an Okoban tracer tag on it. A waiter where I ate lunch found it and entered my tracker number on their website and I was sent a text message (and an email) before I ever even knew my passport was missing. Lucky for me because I was leaving in the morning for Germany and getting a new passport would have been impossible. I found these tags at mystufflostandfound.com. It saved my trip and I now have tags on almost everything that goes with me on a trip.

  2. by Sarremm 07th Feb 2015 06:20

    Yeah! you are absolutely right and I am totally agreed to your point of view. I am a tourist's and travelling is my hobby. I read your article and good to know that your shared information will be helpful for the visitors. So, I will share this unique article to my buddy I hope they a get many things after reading this unique article. Keep sharing such kinds of informative article.

  3. by Brown 07th Feb 2015 08:00

    I agreed with Sarremm, language is one of the most important things while we are traveling anywhere on the earth. But these tips are really helpful to tackle the language barriers during our tours.