Ask Kate: How Do You Get By Without Speaking English?

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Bolaven Plateau, Laos

When you’re a native English speaker, the world is your oyster.  But what happens when people can’t speak your language?

Hi Kate,

Seeing that you’ve been to so many places, and obviously don’t know every language how comfortable are you traveling to these places? Do you just learn some of the necessary phrases and words? How do you fully enjoy the experience?

We really hit the lottery when it comes to being native English speakers.  English is the language of the world and the language of the tourism world.  In most places you visit that are outfitted for Western tourism, you will find that most people speak at least a little bit of English, along with nearly all young people.

First of all, plenty of the world speaks English: of course the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the US, and Canada fall into this category.  But did you know that English is also the national language of countries like Belize, the Philippines, India, and most African and Caribbean nations?  (See the full list here.)

In addition to that, English is widely spoken by most people in Scandinavia and on the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia.  In most of Europe and much of the Middle East, you’ll always find an English speaker in a group.

In several years of travel, I’ve had very few problems with communicating in a language I understand.  I have an advantage because I speak French well, and I also speak a bit of Italian and Spanish.  That covers quite a bit of the world.

But no matter where I go, I pick up a few helpful words no matter where I was: Mai yao, ka is a polite way of saying “No, thank you” in Thai; while ga means chicken and heo means pork in Vietnamese.  Salam alaykum is the universal greeting in the Arabic world, while grüß got works for Bavaria, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Swiss Germany.

The only places where I’ve had major communication issues?  Buenos Aires (while many people there speak English and I speak some Spanish, most did not speak English and the Argentine accent was very difficult for me to understand), and tiny villages on the Bolaven Plateau of Laos, where the only people who spoke English were three little boys I met.

Friends of mine have struggled communicating in places like China, Eastern Europe, Russia, lesser-touristed parts of Latin America, Japan (where people will fall all over themselves to help you even if they can’t speak the language!), and other parts of the world that are either more rural or less touristed.

So what do you do when NOBODY speaks English?  Use body language.  Write things down.  Hold up fingers for numbers.  Nod and smile.

Getting By in Another Country

Before arriving in a country where you don’t speak the local language, I recommend learning the following words:  Hello.  Thank you.  Goodbye.  Delicious.  How much is this?  Do you speak English? Speaking basic words in the local language is a way of showing respect, and most people will appreciate your effort.

Beyond that, I recommend getting two things:

1) A phrasebook or a translation app for your smartphone.  I would recommend buying an app over a phrasebook because it takes up no space in your bag and will cost you no more than a few dollars.  Different apps are better for different languages, so do your research.

2) A wordless dictionary.  This is filled with images you can point to — for example, if you’re in a store in China and you need to buy a toothbrush, you can point to the picture of the toothbrush.  This is the one I have.

And even if you find zero English speakers, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be completely lost.

Shortly after I arrived in Florence, I ended up spending an afternoon with two young Greek guys — one spoke a little English and a little Italian, one spoke no English or Italian.  I was two weeks into my semester abroad and spoke hardly any Italian and zero Greek.  But we had a great time attempting to communicate, laughing, drawing, and shaking our heads at the absurdity of it all.

Don’t worry about being unable to speak the local language.  You’ll be able to get around the world just fine.  

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32 thoughts on “Ask Kate: How Do You Get By Without Speaking English?”

  1. I take issue with the statement that “most African […] nations” speak English. Yes, there are a large number of countries (mostly in eastern and southern Africa) where English is an official language, but whether people speak it or not will depend greatly on their level of education. In West Africa, French will get you much further than English. Nonetheless, this is very good advice, and we are indeed very lucky to have been born native speakers of this very widely used language. I found the hardest places to communicate with English only in my experience have been China (though I do speak some Mandarin) and Moscow. Latin America can indeed be tricky too.

  2. Good answer Kate!!

    I’m from Sweden myself. When I started traveling around (I was 19-years old, very naive) my English was so poor, ridiculous poor (the only thing I could say was “that’s nice” and “would it be possible…”) But I survived. Body language and a big smile took me more far than I ever thought was possible. To places I never thought I would visit. I ended up having deep discussions about life with people I never thought I would be able to have a conversation with (don’t ask how).

    It’s for sure a bigger challenge not being able to speak the local language. But isn’t that what traveling is all about. Challenges?

    Your blog is amazing by the way! Continue sharing your stories and experiences to inspire others!

  3. While sign language is different in every country, I am so glad I took it in high school instead of the border restricting Spanish and French. Lots of little signed “translate” and it’s kept me from being “the loud american” in lots of places.

  4. I think it’s fun when you try to communicate with someone that speaks a different language. It’s also amazing on how much you can understand without understanding the spoken words! =)

  5. I studied French, and while I would never claim to speak it, I found that I’m able to read a lot of signs in Spanish. Living in Texas, I’ve learned a few words as well. I joke that I can speak ‘menu’ Spanish.

    While Hindi is the ‘official’ language of India, English is recognized by the Indian Constitution as an official secondary language, and the government uses English as well has Hindi for official purposes.

  6. I take issue with the statement that “most African nations” speak english. Yes, there are a large number of countries where English is an official language, but whether people speak it or not will depend greatly on their level of education.

  7. I have a wordless dictionary too and think it’s a wonderful way to make yourself understood.
    Although I have experienced that many (of the younger) people around the world know at least a few words of English, I’ve learned that you also have to adjust your own English — no idioms, easy words, simple (or even wrong) grammar, and no accent can really help communicating abroad.

  8. When we first started our full time travels I was a bit concerned about the language barriers. Im not a quick learner when it comes to a new language. We always try and learn the basics because its just polite but I would be lost without my translator app!

  9. It takes very little effort to learn a few words in the native language. Greetings and how to order food, give directions in a taxi… It is a matter of respect! Spend a few hours at least learning a few useful phrases and words… it will have the locals laughing and helping you more than you might know… George

  10. Hy Kate! I would love you to visit Brazil. Yes, most of us speak English, if you’re talking about the south zone of Rio de Janeiro. But I am pretty sure all around this marvelous city everyone “improvises” a bit of English. It’s a bit similar to Spanish, but it is not the same language at all… Anyway, I always try to help any foreigner I see struggling with Portuguese around here. Sometimes, I only watch, because people here are so welcoming that they try their best to help them. Definetly need to come to Brazil!!!

  11. Great post! I think that fear of not being understood/fear of not understanding people keeps many from traveling. Luckily, I’ve always gotten by with the language basics of the country I’m visiting.

    If you’re staying in a country for longer than a few days then I’d recommend making some local friends who can help you out in a jam. The old ‘pass the phone over’ routine really comes in handy!


  12. When I know I am going to need to buy bus or train tickets, I will print out exactly what I want in the language of the country I am purchasing them in.

    My landlord only speaks Italian so we have some very awkward “conversations”. I am really not sure why, but when someone tries to speak to me in their native tongue, I automatically launch into broken Italian. I do not speak Italian at all!

  13. Ray @stingytraveller

    Great advice Kate! While English certainly is the most universal language I’m sure your Spanish and French come in handy!

  14. Our most recent trip was to Japan and I totally agree on everything!

    The japanese phrase book helped me a lot. We had to do with a lot of sign and body language especially since most phrasebooks dont particularly have a direct translation of “where is the best local shopping that most tourists dont usually go to? Oh and it has to be darn cheap too”

    I wanted to buy a sort of alternative to the photo dictionary, it was a bracelet with icons that you could point to so you wouldnt have to have it on you – especially since my hands were already preoccupied with japanese rail system map

    i also now start bowing at the end of every sentence. 😛

  15. Nice tips Kate !

    I wanna ask, where did u take the picture? Coz it’s like a traditional house in south sulawesi, indonesia.

  16. Hey Kate!

    Love the advice that you give!

    I have a question and that is, I’m bound for S. Korea in a few days time and with all that ongoing tension, I don’t know if I should still proceed with my plans. I’m only 19 and my parents are worried. I’m pretty convinced that nothing will happen though!

    What do i do? Should I risk it?

    Hope to hear from you soon!

  17. Dear Kate
    Let me add,to the”non-speaking cities’ list”,Rio de Janeiro ! Surprisingly,this is supposed to be a touristic destination for many years,& yet,very few in Brazil,& in Rio,hardly speak any English.
    What a shame with the FIFA world Cup next year & the Olympic games in 3 years’ time !
    Brazilians are so friendly & do anything to help you,but they didn’t get the chance to learn any foreign language.

  18. Anyone automatically create severely posts I would personally declare. Which is the very first time that We frequented your web site page and therefore considerably? I personally pleasantly surprised with all the analysis you have made to make that submit amazing. Great job!

  19. I love that you include “delicious” in your list of recommended phrases – my top three for any new country are “hello”, “thank you” and “delicious”! People laugh at me about it and so many of the phrasebooks don’t include it but that pretty much covers you, hey?

  20. I keep hearing that no one will speak English in France, is this true?? Will I be completely lost if I only know basic phrases?

    1. Hi, Laura — people will speak English, but the part of France where you are is a factor. In France, most people will appreciate it if you try to speak as much French as you can, even if it’s just greeting them.

  21. Just wrote the note from Joe! Joe, you are s o right! At the moment in Rio ! Oh Lord, v e r y few people here have any knowledge of english. My belgian language capacities in dutch are not enough to travel so I weaponed myself with French and english. But what happened to the Brazilians? They accomodate so many events, attract millions of tourists to their country, but do not invest in communication (well, if they do, surely not enough). I find it a great downside to visit brazil as I missed a lot so far in not being able to communicate to someone with very few exceptions Surely, one find ways to communicate anyway using pictures or using gestures, learn basic portuguese..

    And then again, I also wonder, what do THEY miss, the brazilians, from books, the internet, scientific articles for their training, feedback from tourists and visitors,,and so forth , if they are only using for instance portuguese written sources?

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