How To Communicate With Locals When Abroad

4 easy tips to help with communication when you're in a foreign land.

Posted by The Senior Advocate on Sept. 25, 2019

1. Utilize a handheld digital translator

Travel abroad! This is actually a dream that everyone cherishes somewhere deep in the heart. But when this dream comes true, it comes with some problems. Among all, the biggest problem is the language barrier. But you need not worry at all. All thanks to a language translator device that will make your job of communicating with the local population much easier. The advanced technology of voice translators help reduce a lot of communication barriers in everyday human interaction. So, are you ready to speak a foreign language in minutes?


2. Cover the basics - learn some of the most common words from the local language

Talk to a man in a language he understands and it'll go to his head. Talk to him in his language, however, and that goes to his heart!

Just think about that for a second. If someone who's not a native English speaker says "hello" or "thank you", don't you feel excited? I know I do! That's why when I'm traveling, I make sure to learn those same words in the dominant language of the area I'm visiting. Instead of speaking English right away, I say "hola," "hej," "nǐ hǎo" or "bonjour!"

Immediately, the person I'm speaking with smiles and is eagerly willing to interpret what I'm trying to say and will do their best to help. It's not always easy to learn and speak different languages when traveling, but learning the basic conversational words and phrases can help immensely.

To get started, you can do a search for something like "how to say hello in other languages" to brush up on your greetings and other common phrases. Alternatively, you can look into an instant translator to help.

Shaking Hands

3. Use a mixture of gestures and foreign languages

Does simply thinking about speaking a word in a foreign language bring on paralyzing fear? Just remember, this isn't a test. No one is going to notice your mistakes or laugh at them. I promise!

Don't fear making mistakes. After all, that's how we learn. Only refusing to try will result in you not learning.

For most people you'll speak with, just trying to speak in their native tongue (something not English) will make you out to be a hero in their eyes. Regardless of your level of speaking in that language, they'll be delighted that you want to learn their language and have even tried.

Trust me. Germans and French often ask me "why my language?" They couldn't understand why anyone would spend time and learn their language and dialect. They kept saying "you speak great French / German" even if all I could say was one word or sentence full of mistakes.

Often times, you won't have any languages in common with the person you're speaking with. When this happens, use the words you do know in all of the languages you can think of along with a lot of gestures to try to draw out what you're getting at. Usually, the message translates through a combination of similar words or phrases and the picture drawn by your gestures.


On one trip while in Germany, drawing became very useful for me. Even though I speak German, the dialect of the nice woman I was speaking with didn't quite match up and the very specific directions she was giving me didn't make any sense. "You’ll go like the stairs. What stairs, where are the stairs? There’s no stairs, you’ll go LIKE STAIRS!” Between the two of us, drawing helped convey the messages we were sending back and forth and helped me understand that she wanted me to turn left then right then left then right...just like the shape of stairs. It made so much more sense once I saw the drawing!

4. Prepare beforehand

Just like I mentioned in the beginning, I was in Stockholm when my back decided to throw a fit. To say the least, it was less than ideal timing as we were getting ready to go skiing and I didn't want to end up stuck in a doctor's office for hours just to get get some ibuprofen. Therefore, I had to go to the pharmacy to buy painkillers.

Presuming that no one in the pharmacy would understand any English (which was exactly what happened), I decided to research how to say "painkiller" in Swedish. Needless to say, I should have lead with that, but once the pharmacist heard "kill" and was white as a ghost, I knew what had to be done. I quickly clarified "smärtstillande! smärtstillande!" after which they knew what I needed, helped me find some ibuprofen and sent me on my way. By knowing the correct word beforehand, I didn't have to resort to gestures or spend a lot of time playing the translation guessing game.

Stockholm Snow

If you know you're going to buy something specific, find out what it's called beforehand and go in prepared. You don't even need to use full sentences; it's enough to just know a few keywords.

It can also be helpful to prepare small cards with full translations you can hand to natives. You can say things like, "Hi, my name is X, I come from Y and I'm going to Z. I'd be very grateful if you could point me in the right direction." If you have that ready, there won't be any translation problems later on.

Listening to different accents can also help, even in your own language. I went to Ireland once and even though English is the pervasive language, the way they speak it is very different and can be hard to understand. By listening to some Irish accents online, I was able to prepare for what I was about to encounter.

5. Smile!

If there's one thing I can guarantee will help communicate, it's to smile, smile, smile! Don't get nervous and show a furrowed brow or frantically confused eyes. Just smile. A smile is one of the easiest ways to communicate and puts everyone at ease. Be positive! If you smile and work together to understand each other, everything will be fine and you might even make a friend out of it.

Going back to when I was in Stockholm needing a painkiller and the pharmacist was scared to death, I merely smiled while clarifying with the correct phrase. The pharmacist could see I actually meant no harm and just needed some help. After that, they were glad to take care of me.


Try to use these tricks the next time you're traveling abroad and see how you do. I bet communicating will be much easier and your experience will be that much better!

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