Traveling Internationally Without Knowing the Language

Updated on October 3, 2019
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By Barbara Cole, Ph.D.

Returning the keys to my rented Skoda, I sighed relief. I had driven alone nearly a thousand miles throughout southern Ukraine. 

Relieved no drunken drivers had whammed the Skoda, all oncoming vehicles in my lane swerved right, and I had not rear-ended autos lacking brake lights, I breathed success. 

How had I, a senior, managed to get myself from San Francisco to Ukraine and multiple other cities alone without knowing the local language? How had I managed to travel in more than eighty countries, most where English isn’t the dominant language when I lacked fluency in all languages aside from English, without hiring guides or translators? 

I am not proud of my language shortcomings. I’ve studied several languages so I know some words and alphabets but I’m no hyperpolyglot. 

Many seniors want to see the world but are fearful of being misunderstood. Instead they stay home, not doing what they want to do. 

Here are some options:

  1. Sign up for language classes online or in your home town. Some are free. You’ll learn and connect with some new about-to-be friends. 
  2. Smartphones-download maps, guides, compass, a dictionary or translation app. International hotel personnel often carry them, allowing easy two-way communication. 
  3. Observe body language and hand signals. Chinese merchants often communicate price with hand gestures rather than speaking. Know before you go what signals not to use. The thumbs up sign Americans use frequently would be considered rude in Thailand or the Middle East. 
  4. Dictionaries-carrying a small readable print dictionary can help a local speaker find words to communicate. Electronic ones can be challenging in hinterlands where battery and electrical power may not be available.
  5. Remember language derivatives and cognates in deciphering unknown words. For example, “agricola” means farmer in Latin. When I see some form of agri, I know it relates to farming in some way. 
  6. Native speaker contact is easy these days via the internet or through reputable local agencies. Many are eager to practice their English, can give you valuable guidance, and help you learn some essential words. Hire one for a day to show you around or help with specific situations.
  7. Develop an inner sense of guidance. Does it feel like that isolated lane is a safe one or one where thugs await unsuspecting travelers? Are shops getting smaller, signaling an end to availability of taxis, buses, and transport? Observe and think. 
  8. Increase your patience threshold. Sometimes we have to accept that we are not going to get where we want exactly when or how we want.
  9. Read extensively about your intended location. Put the pieces together, jigsaw puzzle style. If needed, ask your librarian for help. 
  10. Travel more so you learn what to expect. For example, you will discover that airports are usually, but not always, on the edge of town. You learn that some cities have buses which move exactly on time while others do not leave until they have a full passenger load. 
  11. Learn one new word each day—in any language. Surprise yourself at how you increase your interest in another culture or history of the word’s origin.
  12. Face your fears about not speaking the language. Try whatever words you know. 
  13. Forget and forgive if others are rude, cannot help you or send you in a wrong direction. They may have misunderstood. Move on to the next highlight of the trip. 

It would be wonderful if we all spoke the same language, did not have to worry about border crossings, and lived happily ever after. Until that changes, we can remain fearful or we can face fears, get ourselves out there and have new achievements to celebrate. Above all else, we can keep traveling.

Thinking as a small child she would meet everyone in the world, Barbara has traveled to nearly eighty countries, lived in seven countries, and driven in more than two dozen of them, mostly alone by choice.

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