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How to Get Around When You Don't Know the Language

Middle Aged Caucasian Tourists Try To Navigate A Train Station, How To Get Around When You Don't Speak The Language

Betsie Van Der Meer

With the right tools, you can get by in any country. Here's how to survive when you don't understand the native tongue.

En español

Use your words

  •  Make it a priority to memorize a few words and expressions: "hello," "goodbye," "please," "thank you," "help," "I'm lost," "do you speak English?"
  • When you want to find a restroom, try using the word "toilet," which is understood almost everywhere.

Use your face

  • Your facial expression can get your further than you might think. If you look quizzical or confused or worried, but most of all friendly and open, you will usually find help.
  • A smile will be universally understood. But remember that Americans smile more than people of some other nationalities. A smile of greeting is less likely to be returned in Germany, Russia or Japan.

Use your head

  • Nodding generally means yes, and shaking your head means no. However, do some research just in case. If you happen to be in Bulgaria, nodding and shaking your head mean the opposite.

Use your hands

  • Pointing is useful, but remember: Almost every gesture using fingers is sure to offend someone somewhere, so it's best to avoid using any single-finger gestures — point with your whole hand.
  • Certain American hand signs mean completely different things elsewhere. If you signal a French chef with a thumb-and-forefinger "A-OK" gesture, you'll be assigning a score of zero to the meal. Thumbs-up is a rude gesture in Australia, Greece and the Middle East.
  • If you get yourself in trouble, use the namaste gesture: Press your hands together with your fingers pointing upward and your thumbs close to your chest, and bow your head slightly; almost everywhere this gesture is a sign of peace and respect.

Use your paper

  • Carry a notepad and pen. You'll be surprised how much you can say with sketches. The other person can use your notepad to write or draw a map.

  • Carry a paper map in the local language; it's often more practical than a map on your phone. Hotel front desks typically have maps to give out and will trace your route to any destination. Ask the concierge to write down names and addresses so you can show them to a taxi driver or to a local whom you're asking for directions.

  • Carry your hotel's business card in the local language.

Use your smartphone

  • Have fun checking out translation apps. Some are free; some cost $2 or less. With apps created for a specific language, you can tap on a phrase you need and hear it spoken. Some will translate your written words into another language and will translate what another person says to you back into spoken English.
  • Google Translate is quite agile, offering 50 languages. You can type or speak your question, see and hear it translated, and get a written phonetic translation. You need Wi-Fi for some operations, but you can save your favorite translations to use offline. With this app, the camera on your phone will translate written text visually. No kidding. Just point the camera at text, say, on a menu, a road sign or a plaque in a museum, and you'll see the words transformed into English on your screen.
  • Record your route. Take pictures — of intersections, buildings, signs and other things that might serve as landmarks along your path — so you can retrace your steps with the photos. It's like a modern-day version of bread crumbs. On the subway, take a picture of the transit system map, so you can refer to it as often as you need to, especially when changing trains or platform.

Use your imagination

  • Find people who want to practice their English with you. Try browsing in bookstores. Or take a walk on a university campus. Or sit down in a coffee shop and strike up a conversation with a smile or a question.
  • There are a number of websites that offer up locals for casual sightseeing tours, meals, shopping and other experiences. Try Global Greeter Network, where local tourism boards match you with volunteers who will take you around. Also check out Tours By Locals and Vayable.

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