How to travel without speaking any foreign languages

We all have that fear that we’re lost in a foreign country. Of course, it’s a country where we don’t speak a single syllable of the language.

We all felt a little bubble of fear form in the pit of our stomach and the only question that fills the void is, “What would I do?”

Yet, I would consider this an irrational fear. Irrational because there are so many ways to solve this problem and that it’s not really a problem at all.

For a long time, I let my fat tongue that’s untrained in foreign languages prevent me from experiencing the world. Now I know how seriously wrong my mentality was.

The wrong mentality  

Travel is about experiencing diverse cultures around the world. Now, I believe the starker the difference, the more enjoyable the learning experience and cultural journey will be. Before I wasn’t such an optimist.

Before, I believed that if you didn’t learn the language of a country it was a disservice to the country and your experience. Yet, I’ve started to shy away from that.

It certainly is more liberating to travel a country where you are fluent in the language. Accessing information is easier and in some ways, you can blend in and experience a destination like a local.

I yearn to speak foreign languages so I can understand locals depict the history and their daily struggles in their native tongue. Often times, the details and heart of the story are lost in translation. Euphemisms and slang do not translate between languages or a similar meaning can’t be found to tell the story adequately.

Yet, neglecting to hear the story because I’m afraid that it won’t be as great as the original is silly and naïve on my part.

My biggest regret is letting a language barrier stop me from traveling

I think of all the opportunities I passed up simply because I didn’t speak a smidge of the language. Now, looking back, I should never have let that stop me.

I used to limit myself to travel only to the travel where I was fluent in the language or at least knew the basic conversational phrases. Which I was my first, solo international destination was to Puerto Rico. Even though: Me gusta tu gato! De donde al bano? Buenos noches! Was the extent of my Spanish.

According to Duolingo, I’m 8 percent fluent in Spanish. (What a joke!) Yes, this was after “learning” the language for six years, and “teaching” it to kindergarteners for another two. In other words, I can name all the animals in a zoo in Spanish, but do not know the word for clouds or rain.  

While I was in Puerto Rico, I spent two weeks trying to scrape by with Spanglish. Sometimes the locals pitied me and would speak to me in English. Other times, reality forced me to try to piece together a coherent sentence in Spanish. It was so rewarding having a local answer my question in Spanish and I knew the exact translation. By speaking to them in their native tongue, I felt like I embraced their culture more.

I decided to push myself even future when I decided to travel to a destination where I didn’t know a single word of the language — Iceland. Though most Icelanders speak English, there were a few times when I was in the northern, fishing villages of Iceland that I couldn’t verbally communicate with the locals. Instead, I had to resort to miming and motioning with my arms to convey my message.

And I survived.

Now, there’s been times when I’ve felt alienated and even stressed that I haven’t known the native language of the country. (Let’s recall that time in Puerto Rico where I got yelled at in Spanish about parking!) But that’s part of the learning process. Learning how to muddle your way through asking for directions and ordering food is just another joy of traveling abroad. It’s those silly moments that you look back and laugh on.

Are my travels less impactful if I don’t know the language?

After visiting countries where I don’t even know the local phrases for “hello” and “goodbye,” it hasn’t been any less meaningful. In each destination I venture to I find some local that shelters me under their wing and educates me about the customs and traditions of the region.

Whether that’s in perfect or broken English or a smattering of other languages, I’ve soaked up every ounce of knowledge I gained.

Often times, I return from where I’ve visited knowing a little more of their language. That is often times more rewarding. I can tell my friends and family that I learn this foreign phrase in a small village from a local woman selling crafts versus I learned it online or via Google.

Regardless of the number of foreign languages I speak, I’m still inundated with the amount of learning I receive while traveling.

What the future holds

For me, there is something so mystical and exhilarating about hearing people speak in their native tongue. I’m envious of them! There syllables and phrases dancing around in their mouths and paint beautiful symphonies — ones that would make Bach jealous. Though I desperately wish I was fluent in more than one language, I won’t let that prevent me from traveling the world.

Whether it’s a secluded, tropical, coastal town or to the heart of a foreign metropolis, I’m going there. I’ve now learned that languages barriers aren’t really a “barrier,” unless I make them be.

Luckily, I can make up for lost time. I’m still young and have plenty of time to embark to those countries where I’m not fluent in German, French, Arabic or anything else. But heck, I’m going.

Discover some tips at Everyday Wanderer about how to overcome language barriers. 

About the Author

Quirky Globetrotter

Hi! I'm Martha! The mastermind behind Quirky Globetrotter a feminist travel blog. Quirky Globetrotter is devoted to telling narratives devoted to female solo travel and hidden gems worldwide with an emphasis on intersectional feminism and how that impacts travel on a global and local level.

22 thoughts on “How to travel without speaking any foreign languages

  1. Ha, I totally agree! I think language is a great remover of barriers, but it shouldn’t stop you from travelling to new places. At least you tried to speak some Spanish, no es un idioma facil aprender!

  2. Not speaking the language of where you are traveling to could be a barrier if you let it. It is never a that for me. I was sen to school in Asia when I was young and I did not speak the language, You learn by doing what and saying like the locals do. Its fun! Last year I went to Easter Island and Chile, and even though I did not speak a word of Spanish I had a fantastic time! I think a big “smile” always goes a long way

    1. Hi Nicole! Your advice of “a big ‘smile’ always goes a long way” is so true! In Iceland, when I was in a grocery store looking for frozen peas, a smile was really all I could muster because I didn’t know a single word of Icelandic. And yes, sometimes it takes getting dumped, unknowingly into a culture with a language barrier for someone to truly learn how to speak it. What a great experience that must’ve been for you. Thanks for reading!

  3. I loved this blog. So many have old me China is a difficult (even impossible) country to travel through because they do not speak English. That makes it an even more exciting destination for me. Haha, the person who yelled at you in Spanish in Puerto Rico would not even know that you didn’t understand Spanish. But then we all pick signs and understand what the person is trying to say.

    1. Hi Abhinav! This is precisely why I want to venture to places like China, Korea and Japan. I don’t know any of those languages, but the culture there is unlike anything else around the world. Why limit ourselves just because of a language barrier? In most cases we can hire a local guide that can act as a translator, or, we should take the time to learn a few words and phrases in the native language to get by. Neither reason is good enough for me to skip traveling to those destinations. Thanks for reading!

  4. YES! I 100% agree with you. It’s one of the biggest things I tell people. Don’t let the language be a barrier, there are plenty of ways around it. I just look back at the list of our travels and where we would not have gone if we chose to go to places where we knew the language. It would be a pretty small list and we wouldn’t have all these amazing experiences. We do always work to learn a few basic phrases for the country we’re going to. Having at least hello, goodbye, please and thank you goes a long ways with getting the locals to help you. Excellent post 🙂

    1. Hi Heidi! I definitely agree with your advice about learning a few major phrases. I feel like a lot of people think it’s necessary to carry around a translation book, but it isn’t! (I keep envisioning that scene from Gossip Girl where Rory is trying to pack 12 language dictionaries in her backpacks for her Europe backpack trip with Lorelai, ha!) Now with smartphones and Google Translate, we can easily type in what we need or want. I try not to do that though, unless it’s a dire circumstance, because where’s the fun in that? Usually miming what you need can help as well. Thanks for reading!

  5. I think that the experiences of traveling knowing the language or not can be very different. Even if you do not speak the language you can have a great time but you will be able to get a better taste of the country if you do. I am not saying stop traveling if you do not know how to communicate with the locals, I am just telling that the other option, in my honest opinion, is better.

    1. Hi Jenn! I wholeheartedly agree! I feel like there are stories that can only be told with justice in the native tongue, or phrases and words that are simply lost in translation because there isn’t an equivalent in another language. It’s understandable that we can’t learn every single language when we travel abroad, but attempting to learn a few phrases or greetings is a good start. It’s on my bucket list to perfect my Spanish and learn another language then live in a country abroad to be able to use it! Thanks for reading!

  6. This is such a lovely post! I completely agree with you that language barrier should not stop you from travelling to any country. We’ve been to countries where we faced the language barrier, but that was altogether a different experience. We even learnt some of their basic greetings and gestures.

    1. Hi Shaily! Learning even one or two basic greetings and phrases can drastically improve your experience there. For me, it makes me feel less like a tourist if I can at least say “hello” in the native tongue. Thanks for reading!

  7. Language barriers do stop a lot of people to visit some places. I’ve known people that are more scared if the language doesn’t have a latin alphabet as in their minds it would be the worse to not understand any words or letters! Like you said, travelling is all about experiencing diverse cultures and language shouldn’t be something that stops you from travelling ever!

    1. Hi Mimi & Mitch! I find that languages using a Latin alphabet are definitely preferred. For instance, my fiance speaks Arabic and it’s so hard to find an app that will teach you Arabic because it doesn’t use a Latin alphabet. A little frustrating, but also understandable. I’m glad you agree that language shouldn’t be a barrier. Happy travels to you both!

  8. I think it can be a barrier especially for confident traveller, but I don’t think it should stop you from enjoying yourself if you dont let it.I completely agree with your way of thinking and travel is all about experience and there is always the opportunity to learn some basic phrases whilst you are there from the locals or even before.

    1. Hi Lisa! Yes, those basic phrases can come in super handy to even help initiate a conversation. Even after an interaction in a foreign language, where you maybe spoke only a sentence of a few words in the native tongue, still leaves me giddy with pride. Thanks for reading!

  9. Beautiful post regarding travel versus language barrier. Language is not important in traveling which I have understood, when I went to remote villages of China, Spain, Greece and Austria. People don’t speak much English but with sign language we transmitted everything. Also I can speak in my language freely with my family as nobody surrounding us understood our language. But these days, Google translators or other apps has made traveling more smoother. But I have learnt many phrases for Hello and Bye in many languages.

    1. Hi Yukti! Isn’t it funny what a little sign language can help us achieve? And I totally agree, Google Translate has been a life saver for me sometimes, especially when reading road signs. It is still nice, as you point out, to learn a few basic phrases in the native language. Thanks for reading!

  10. Haha! Been there, done that!!! Living as an expat now in a country where I don’t know the language… Its funny and miserable at the same time… Lolz…
    I’ll know soon how long am I gonna stay here. Planning to learn the local language, if my stay extends more than a year…

    1. Hi Bhushavali! What country do you live now? (Just out of curiosity). And I can completely understand how that’s hard on a daily basis. Kudos to you for sticking it out! And yes, what a great way to learn a language than from the locals and while living there. That’s on my bucket list someday! Thanks for reading!

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