Travel Hack: Language Barriers

The one essential thing that you cannot ‘pack’ into your travel luggage, is language.

Most of the world speaks English, and I am very blessed to be a native English speaker. This language helps you survive and find your way through most countries. Especially in places where they have good tourism (like Thailand), some of the locals there can even speak a little bit of English to make things easier for tourists.

I can speak English and Malay, fluently – so that helps in about 60% of the world. I also speak a little Chinese, and am learning some Spanish on my own as well. But what about those countries where English is not spoken, and you can’t understand their language at all? What if it’s a language not written in alphabets, so you can’t hope to even read and try to pronounce a few words? No worries, I think I’ve got you covered there, so I hope you may find these tips useful.

It doesn’t hurt to learn a few words of greeting, thank you, hello and even the word eat – in the native language of the country you’re visiting. Learn those important ones which you know you’re gonna need. It shows eagerness to learn and respect for their language. For example, phrases like “mai yao, ka” is a polite way of saying “no, thank you” in Thai. In the Philippines, complimenting someone with “maganda” (beautiful/pretty) in Tagalog is sure to score you some points from the locals. In Japan, we learnt that saying “itadakimasu” (let’s eat) before eating with the Japanese is polite; just like how the French go “bon appétit“, or the Chinese “sek fan“, before divulging in a delicious, hot meal together. Make sure you learn how to pronounce your words properly, as certain words may have different meanings when pronounced differently. (Like the word ‘cha‘ in Mandarin can mean tea or fork.)

When we were in Kyoto, we had a hard time locating Nishiki Market and were quite lost. We questioned 3 locals who didn’t speak English, but directed us with basic directions (and even tried speaking some English, giving us an accented direction, “leftoh, raightoh”). I must stress that it is important to learn words for directions (left, right, straight, roundabout, etc) to make it easier to understand directions and make it easier for the locals who are helping you out.


I understand that sometimes there are too many words to learn, especially if it’s a foreign language that’s hard to pronounce. Learn the important greetings and skip learning words for toilet or transportation. Instead, print-out the universal signs for toilet, bus, taxi, boat, train, hospital and so on. If you need to go to certain places, you can print the road signs or location image out for the locals to assist you, especially when it comes to taxi drivers if you’re taking a cab. I find this especially useful when in crowded areas and people do not have time to try and understand you. Images speak more than words in this case – and these printed gems can be reused in any country.

Keep a small flag of your own country, as most locals are friendly and usually would like to know where you come from. Especially since I’m Chinese, some countries tend to not warm-up so much to me as they think I’m from China (where they are well-known for being one of the rudest tourists ever), but once I show them my Malaysian flag, and they go like “ahhh, Malaysia” and things are much better from thereon.

No, not the game – but something with a similar concept. Useful for anything and everything in a foreign country. Need to buy a toothbrush? Want a chicken dish from a foreign menu? Want spare change? Unless you have time to print out everything that you think you may need, get a wordless dictionary that has all the images you can ever need to help you out. If you need one, you can get it here. For me, I’d usually research a certain country and print out only certain things that I think I need.

There are so many apps these days that can translate your words immediately to help locals understand you. Some may require an internet connection to work (which you may not have), so try to get an app which has a built in dictionary-translator (usually paid apps) to help you out.

Illustrated by Jenni Sparks.

Hotel cards, so you can get back home no matter where you are. This is rule number ONE in travel, no matter what language the country speaks. Also, most hotels have free maps and brochures to places of interest around the city area, so be sure to grab one of each – doodle and mark each specific place you need to go, it helps. As for pen and paper, bring some along every time you go out. I find it useful (especially if I have to make multiple train switches), to note down the platforms, stations and exits I use. It helps in retracing your steps, and saves time from asking. It’s useful in countries like Korea or Japan where the sign boards are all in gibberish.

So these are my small hacks to aid me in my travels. Do you have any special hacks for your travels? Do share!

P/s: Main images used on this blog are credited to Paul Octavius.

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