Know any communication hacks to communicate with non-English speakers?
February 23, 2015 7:28 PM   Subscribe

I'm traveling to some countries where I won't know the native language. I'm terrible at learning languages so I wanted to see if y'all know any quick hacks for communicating. e.g. one method is to carry a phrasebook and point to the relevant lines in it, then hand the book to the other person and have them point out their reply. (Hopefully its in the book :). Another: when on a bus and unsure whether it's the right one: Point forwards, say the destination in an interrogative tone, lift eyebrows.
posted by storybored to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Where will you be travelling? More details might help with people's answers.

When I was in Poland for a few days, I got by with some gestures. While grocery shopping, for example, I would point out which cheese I wanted and then use my hands to show how much I wanted.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 7:33 PM on February 23, 2015

Google Translate app was a big help to me when I went to Costa Rica with no Spanish. You can talk to it and it makes a big flash card on your phone.
posted by irisclara at 7:51 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you use a dictionary, be sure to check the reverse translation before pointing to a foreign word. In other words (ha!), find your English word, see the likely MULTIPLE words the book translates it to, then translate those words back to English and see how they come out. Sometimes you'll actually be pointing to a word that doesn't say what you mean, at all!
posted by intermod at 8:01 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for something in a store, search for a picture of the thing on your phone and show them that instead of the word - then you can be sure you're referring to the same thing.
posted by desjardins at 8:24 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think the most important thing to keep in mind is to boil down your question to the most simple element, even if it means asking several questions in succession so you get a step-by-step answer.

Also, in some cultures, not knowing the answer means a loss of face so you will hear an answer that is not necessarily correct and in those places, you need to ask more than one person to be sure.

I've used phrasebooks but most pre-set questions/answers are not MY questions so I've found it better to learn nouns, verbs, numbers that travellers frequently use and I write those down in a little notebook. Don't worry about being grammatical or speaking in full sentences. I also used to draw pictures and used my hands a lot, ie drawing a needle and mimicking sewing by hand.

If you plan ahead, you can ask someone local at your guesthouse/hotel to write out questions or directions or explanations in your notebook so you can point to them later when you need them.

2nding what intermod says. Beware of homonyms when using a dictionary/translator.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:28 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

For nouns, one can point to a picture. Laminated, map folded versions from have small, simple graphics. kwickpoint is down right now, at least for me. See samples of their products by searching on 'site:' at

Another source is 'Point it: Traveller's Language Kit'. Seems like a far less useful version because the photos of subjects and their backgrounds are brimming with cultural context.

Both kiwkpoint products and Point It are available from Amazon and others.

For travel, the two most useful words to learn in the local language are 'where' and 'toilet'. I always ask multiple people my 'where' questions because similar answers increase my confidence in their answers.
posted by Homer42 at 8:59 PM on February 23, 2015 [4 favorites]

Absolutely seconding that people will give you wrong answers in order not to dissapoint you. If you think this is happening dont push it too much, just say thank you and ask someone else.

Don't bother trying to be too polite (but always well mannered). Sometimes we add modifiers that just confuse the issue; "sorry to bother you but coud you maybe tell me if there's a bathroom I coud use?" As opposed to "toilet please?" and the eyebrows.
posted by Iteki at 10:03 PM on February 23, 2015

I've used the 'Point it Traveller's Language Kit' with good results. The pictures (photographs) have so many details that can be exactly the thing you may want to point to at a certain time. But they are culturally neutral enough to be well understood.
It's cheap, too; I really recommend that you just bring one.

People telling you what (they think) you want to hear may sometimes (not always, but sometimes) be avoided by asking open questions:
'Is the road to Atbara good?' 'Good, yes, very good.'
'Is there a lot of sand?' 'Yes yes, a lot of sand.'
'The road to Atbara... what does it look like?' *shows pictures of different roads*
'Road to Atbara, yes.' *points to picture of desert track*
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:13 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Learn the words for 'hello', 'please', 'excuse me', 'thank you' and 'goodbye' and maybe numbers 1-10 and then mine, gesture and smile loads! Use as many visual aids as you can (maps, Point It, pointing to objects or your own body, your guidebook, a dictionary, getting your hotel to write your destination down for you etc etc)
posted by kadia_a at 1:26 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was just coming here to say what kadia_a said. Also helps to learn the words for yes and no. Even if you're terrible at learning languages, you can learn that stuff even if you're going to 50 countries. My experience has been that this tiny amount of effort will make a huge difference in how you are received and the effort people will expend in return in understanding you--as in, I have walked up behind a tourist who was just speaking to someone with gestures, etc. to a stony-faced response and gotten a totally different response when I began speaking to the person with a friendly smile and a hello in their own language.

By the same metric, don't just walk up to someone and start speaking English even if you're pretty sure they speak it (like they are in an area where they are interacting with loads of tourists or whatever). One more good phrase to learn is "May I speak English?"

Just the basic politeness of these things will make things go a lot more smoothly for you in most places.
posted by tiger tiger at 1:59 AM on February 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Never point when asking for directions! In many countries (I've traveled extensively on 5 continents), people are eager to help and may say yes or nod affirmatively just to agree. Avoid suggesting an answer by pointing! As mentioned above, make a little list of the basics (hello, please, yes/no, numbers, I want...) and use them. Trying accounts for a lot! Above all, finding English speakers is rarely impossible. The places I had the most trouble in were Bangladesh and rural Paraguay... I had few problems in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia... Just approach kindly with greetings in the dominant local language. Countries with tourist infrastructure generally equate with having some citizens who speak and understand English. Phrase books will guide you through most of what you'll need to order food, find lodging, etc. Use and memorize rather than pointing!
posted by maya at 4:45 AM on February 24, 2015

If you have any food allergies to ingredients you will likely encounter in that country, make sure to either know how to communicate that clearly (keeping in mind that lots of other countries don't even fully understand the severity of some food allergies) or make a flash card in their language to show to waiters that you are allergic/ask if a dish contains that ingredient.

Carry a cheat sheet for major food names so you can translate the menu when ordering, if you won't have access to cell phone data to look this stuff up. Just knowing "chicken, meat, fish, potatoes, salad" can be helpful, if you're not too picky about what you're eating.

Know how to say bottled water vs tap water if that is a concern wherever you're going.

I don't know why I am so concerned about food. I think it's because others already covered other good points.

Find out other cultural info - when/how much to tip, whether it is disrespectful to hand someone something with just one hand, whether you need to take off your shoes when entering someone's house and avoid pointing your feet towards someone, whether it is disrespectful to touch a kid on their head, whether a thumbs up or OK symbol is rude, whether women should cover their mouth or not show their teeth when smiling/laughing, etc.
posted by at 9:09 AM on February 24, 2015

Learn a few key words and phrases ('please' and 'thank you' should be among them, along with emergency type stuff like 'help' or 'thief' or w/e), and then if you don't know the word for something, like a specific object (say you are out shopping), learn the words for 'this' or 'that.' Sometimes when I blank on a word in my second language, I revert to saying "I want that" or "that please" and that (no pun intended) usually does the trick.
posted by lana0112 at 7:50 PM on March 21, 2015

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