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6 Tips on How to Survive without Knowing the Local Language

Talk Louder

The louder you talk the easier it is for people to understand you, so turning up your voice’s volume is always a good idea. Obviously everybody knows English these days, so the problem lies with their hearing. Still not working? Try again, but throw in some anger – that always helps. If they still aren’t getting it, roll your eyes and complain about that Chinese person’s lack of English skills.

Watch Movies

I’ve seen Inglourious Basterds about 5 times, so I’m pretty sure I could get by in France or Germany. The best way to learn a language (apart from having me teach you) is to watch movies. You’ll pick up some handy words and you’ll also get a sense of how conversations flow. This should work for me, assuming every conversation I have in Germany and France is on revenge against Nazis.

Draw pictures

So, you want lamb for dinner? Good luck ordering it if you don’t speak the local language. An easy solution is to draw a picture of a lamb. “But Jon (I hear you say), a lamb looks almost exactly like a sheep, how do I get the point across that I want a baby sheep and not an old one?” Scale! Any good artist knows the importance of scale. Draw a family of sheep and point to the small one, but let’s face it, if you are trying to order lamb in Asia (or most third world countries) chances are you’ll be getting an old, haggard, tough piece of mutton, so that masterpiece you just drew might be in vain.

Draw a picture when ordering lamb, one of the many tips on how to survive without knowing the local language

Get a translator app on your phone

This is probably the most useful tip, assuming you have internet on tap at all times. I did this a lot in Taiwan, but since I only had an IPod touch with no mobile internet, as soon as there was any confusion over the words (usually directions for a taxi driver) I was back to square one.

Only frequent heavily touristed areas

If there’s one set of people who are likely to speak English, it’s people who work in hotels and restaurants in touristy areas. You could get by in almost any country in Southeast Asia this way (and many do) but you run the risk of being mocked by more professional and arrogant travellers.

Ask for help from western fast food/coffee chains

If you’re stuck in a non-touristy area and no one speaks English, head to your nearest Starbucks or McDonald’s. You should be able to find someone that can help, but if not, you can take comfort in some food from back home. Some people say the worst thing you can do while travelling is eat McDonald’s, but for me travelling isn’t about living by rules – do whatever you want, travel however you choose and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

So, I hope you’ve learnt something here today. Don’t bother learning the local language, just raise you voice, get angry and draw pictures – you’ll be fine. I’m currently travelling in China and it does require a bit more organisation, but travelling without knowing the local language is possible, especially if the locals are friendly and willing to help.

Do you have any more tips? Let me know!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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  1. May 25, 2014 at 11:15 pm — Reply

    Yes talk louder and slower – that always works. 🙂 I always try to learn some of the language. At the very least, learn some phrases, directions, food, and stuff like that. It doesn’t take long and the locals always appreciate it. They are more likely to help you if you attempt their language.

    • May 26, 2014 at 10:22 pm — Reply

      Yeah, I always try and learn “hello” and “thank you”, it’s polite but not going to help much!

  2. jessi
    May 27, 2014 at 10:10 am — Reply

    In Russia, people always looked at me incredulously because I have (mostly) blonde hair and blue eyes, so they’d usually assume I’d speak Russian. I picked up a bit, but I understood more than I could say, so the person would blabber on and on and be met by my blank stare. haha. Interesting times.

    GoogleTranslate can come up with some awkward stuff, but awkward is better than nothing – used to use it with my building staff in Turkey before I picked up Turkish.

    Hope you’re enjoying China!

    • May 27, 2014 at 10:21 am — Reply

      Haha, I’ve been getting that in China too, people just talking and talking not realising that I don’t speak Chinese – and I’m pretty sure I don’t look Chinese.

  3. May 27, 2014 at 10:19 pm — Reply

    LOL!! This is freaking funny especially the drawing the lamb part!! ROTFLMAO!!! 😀

  4. June 22, 2014 at 3:02 pm — Reply

    I certainly hope you’re being sarcastic!

  5. August 7, 2014 at 1:13 am — Reply

    So funny. I love reading your posts! Throughout South America my boyfriend used a combination of shouting and charades to communicate. Annoyingly for me, the locals seemed to understand him more than the Spanish I’d been honing for months!

    • August 8, 2014 at 11:25 pm — Reply

      Thanks Emily! I’m planning on going to South America next year, not looking forward to struggling with the Spanish…

  6. August 7, 2014 at 12:16 pm — Reply

    Good tips! I’ve used the McDonalds one more than once! 🙂

    • August 8, 2014 at 11:26 pm — Reply

      At the very least you get to eat some familiar food!

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