Tips for Communicating with Non-English Speakers

A miniature language-to-language dictionary, in this case Danish to French (Wikimedia)
A miniature language-to-language dictionary, in this case Danish to French (Wikimedia)

While there are many glorious aspects to international travel, one that’s often less than glorious is the process of trying to communicate with people who don’t share your language, and, for American travelers, this usually means people who don’t speak English. Sometimes, I’ve felt like the toddler who’s desperately trying to tell a parent something important but just doesn’t have the words. Yes, it can be very frustrating both for you and the other person. But, with a little patience and creativity, I’ve found that you can usually get the job done.

What are some tips for communicating with non-English speakers? Here are 6 that many travelers (including myself) have found quite helpful:

  1. Carry a Small Language-to-Language Dictionary. You can either buy a small book or add an app to your mobile device. But, in either case, this is indispensable when you travel to any country where English is not the dominant language. Often, you just need to get a word or two across to make your point, and finding the right word for bathroom in French or Italian certainly beats trying your hand at charades, especially if your need is pressing.
  2. Do Your Best to Speak the Accent. In fact, if you can summon the courage, exaggerate. Yes, your accent will be terrible, but you will be able to communicate more effectively. And, rather than being insulted, the locals are usually downright impressed that you make such an effort to communicate in their language. Even if you mangle the pronunciation up pretty badly, you’re more likely to receive a gentle smile than an arched eyebrow in return.
  3. Soak up the Words You See and Hear. Staying in a country where most people speak and read in a foreign language is probably the most effective language immersion experience out there. You’ll be amazed how many words you’ll pick up in just a day or two if you’re really open to embracing them. So, soak it all up—the street signs, message boards, hotel signs, brochures, restaurant menus, everything. You’ll be amazed by how many new words you’ll learn in short order.
  4. Ask if There’s an English Word That Sounds Like the Foreign Word You Hear. In Europe and Latin America especially, this is a very helpful technique, because many English words have their roots in the Romance and Germanic languages. The Italian word for wine, for example, is vino. The German word for water is wasser. Often, just hearing a word that sounds like its English equivalent and making a small logical leap is all you need to get the meaning.
  5. Use a notepad. Often, when speaking doesn’t get your point over, writing a key word or two on a notepad will do the trick. People usually find it easier to understand written words and numbers rather than words spoken by someone with a confounding foreign accent. Notepads also come in handy if you just want to sketch a picture of, say, the Eiffel Tower or a local cathedral.
  6. Act Out. Hand gestures usually work well, too. Bringing your thumb and forefinger close together can clearly tell a waiter that you only want a small glass of wine or piece of cake. Or using your arms and hands to make like you are driving a car is a good way to ask for a taxi or other ground transportation. (At least, it’s a good way to start the process.) But, it’s also good to be cautious here. Certain hand gestures can have very different meaning to people in different countries.  For more on this subject, check out this recent post.

If you have any communication tips you would like to add to this list, we enthusiastically invite you to post a comment. We would be thrilled both to hear from you…and learn from you. So, send us your thoughts.