One of the greatest concerns many people have about traveling to a foreign country lies in their fear of having difficulty communicating with others because of a lack of common language.

Not everyone has the time or talent for learning an entire new language. But while being able to converse with locals can definitely enhance and simplify your travel experience, not knowing a language shouldn’t keep you from exploring new places.

Travelers might be surprised to know just how much you can accomplish without knowing even a single word of the language of the country or countries you travel through. As far as modern technology has brought us, the basics of communication can still serve you very well. I’ve transacted business, crossed borders and gotten directions with not much more than hand signals, drawings in the dirt or a pencil and paper. A friend of mine once bought eggs from a market just by flapping his arms and making clucking noises. It can be done. However, I would, of course, always advise preparation over desperation in order to avoid unnecessary stress or frustration on the part of the traveler or those they encounter. It’s advisable to get at least a basic knowledge of the languages you expect to encounter in your travels.

How do you ask for fuel?

Where to get the most “mileage” out of your language skills?
Geographically speaking, nearly one-third of the “rideable” land of the world (not including Antarctica) is located in North and South America. North America is made up entirely of English and Spanish speaking countries (that is, if you can get Quebecois to admit they speak English). And South America is geographically more than half Spanish-speaking, leaving only Brazil and the three small countries of Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname out of the Latino loop. Travelers could spend months or years riding thousands of miles on these two continents while needing only two languages – English and Spanish. As Spanish uses a similar alphabet to English and is often thought of as a relatively easy language to learn, it might be worth considering this part of the world as a travel destination that provides a good place to expand your language horizons.

Where to start?
Learning a new language can be intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. I was worried about making mistakes and being embarrassed when I first started speaking Spanish. But nearly everyone I encountered seemed to really appreciate the fact that I was at least trying to learn their language. Everyone I met was, without exception, patient, helpful and very kind. My poor language skills broke down a lot of barriers in that it often helped me and the people I was attempting to talk to laugh and relax.

Keep in mind that as we all know you can’t run without first learning to walk. The same holds true of language skills. You will have to start with some basic core language vocabulary: nouns, pronouns, verbs. You should start with the most common words and ones you will need the most. My first words in any language are always “thank you”, for what I would hope are obvious reasons. I focused on verbs I knew I would need to use most often: buy, want, need, go, repair, travel, etc. I learned words related to my needs: directions, numbers (for prices and quantities), words for supplies I needed, words for foods, etc. I added a few words each day and incorporated them into my interactions to get them anchored in my new vocabulary.

There are a lot of tools available to people who are interested in learning a new language, both at home before you go and when you arrive in a foreign land. Some resources to consider should include online language courses (e.g. Rosetta Stone,, etc.), local community education classes or schools in your own country, private tutors, or out-of-country language schools. Spanish language schools can be found in many cities in Latin America, including Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and others. Some schools offer home stays with a full language immersion experience intended to expedite your learning while you enjoy a cultural exchange with your hosts. I found a school in Guatemala that offered housing, 20 hours of lessons per week and meals for roughly US$220 per person per week.

How do you say Ferry in Spanish?

What tools can help you keep your skills sharp?
Thankfully the technology world offers an array of resources to help you with your language needs. A variety of online or smartphone apps are available to help you get started and to keep your skills sharp. I used Duo Lingo on my smart phone while traveling, even when away from wifi, to tackle both Spanish and Portuguese. There are lots of apps to choose from.

Remember to practice all areas of language skills: reading, writing, listening/understanding, and speaking. They are each very important and different in how they are mastered. You may want to consider finding someone to practice your skills with online, either through video which can help you practice speaking and listening skills (Skype, FaceTime, etc.) or correspondence which can help you practice reading and writing skills. The regional forums on Horizons Unlimited and might be a place to find a language partner.

Consider watching subtitled movies and tv shows in the language you want to learn which might help you to get accustomed to various voices and accents speaking the language you are trying to learn.

What to take with you when you travel?
I downloaded an offline dictionary to refer to even when I was away from wifi (e.g. at borders) and used it on many occasions. I also carried a cheat sheet of some common words I thought I might use more often (gasoline/petrol, hotel, restaurant, water, food, hospital, store/shop, border, etc.). Some travelers carry a laminated page of small cartoon drawings of things they can point to if needed (an image of a gas pump, a drawing of a tire, a picture of a bed or a plate of food, etc.) when their language skills aren’t enough.

I also downloaded an app called WordLens to my smart phone. This app uses a phone camera to “read” printed words and can translate them into the language of your choice, and other similar apps may be available. This one didn’t work all the time, but just put another tool in my language toolbox.

Google Translate can also sometimes assist you with translating typed words or even saying something aloud that you have typed and asked the app to translate for you. I think you need to have internet access to use it though, although some offline apps may be available as well.

What do you need to know at the very least?
The place you will benefit the most from having some language skills will likely be border offices. Having some basic language skills and being able to understand the following items can make all the difference in your border experience both in the amount of time you spend there and the frustration you and the border staff may experience because of the language barrier. Some of the basics to know include:

  • How to spell your name (written and verbally) in the local alphabet
  • How to read and complete Customs and Immigration forms
  • How to read road signs
  • How to ask for things you need and understand the answers you get (e.g. directions)
  • How to work with requests from officials (border guards, police checkpoints, airports, etc.)

Michelle Lamphere

In my experience, nearly all people I met were understanding and patient with my limited language skills and tried to help me through the process. I was glad I had at least acquired some very basic language skills before crossing into my first non-English speaking country, but I would have been fine without those skills.

What I valued most about learning to speak another language was the deeper level of interaction and communication I was able to achieve with locals when I traveled. Imagine hearing and understanding a story about a local legend or folk hero when speaking with a local, as opposed to reading it in a guidebook. Imagine interacting with local children who have come out to look at the foreigner who has arrived in their small village, and being able to say hello to them in their own language.

Imagine sharing a small moment of common ground with someone from a different part of our world. That, to me, is what travel is really all about.


Michelle Lamphere