10 easy tips to overcome language barriers while traveling

If you're a bit nervous about being a Worldpacker in a country where you don't know the language, try these tips to overcome language barriers.


Sep 15, 2023


overcome language barriers

A lot of travelers avoid going to regions or countries where their first language isn't understood for fear of the dreaded language barrier

Well, I'm here to tell you that language barriers can nearly always be overcome, even if you don't speak a single word of the language! 

I also want to let you know that it's always worth trying to communicate, because your experiences of trying to make yourself understood are extremely valuable. Here are 10 easy tips for overcoming language barriers while traveling.

10 tips for overcoming language barriers

1. Focus on your body language

2. Make friends

3. Take notes

4. Keep a positive mindset

5. Participate in language exchanges

6. Adopt a 'learn it before you need it' mentality

7. Strategize

8. Pay attention to visual cues

9. Be adaptive

10. Google it

How to overcome language barriers when traveling

1. Focus on your body language

It's widely said that 93% of communication is actually nonverbal, so that's some good news right? Of course, it can be difficult when you're in a specific situation, and you want to communicate something simple without the right words. 

Body language does vary widely from culture to culture, so a little homework will go a long way. What is commonly missed, however, is that knowing how to communicate nonverbally (in any culture) is a skill itself. 

I'd argue that it's always worth trying to communicate if you feel like talking, as it can be very empowering when you surprise yourself with your abilities. 

If you can do it once, you can do it a thousand times!

2. Make friends

One of the best language immersion strategies is to make friends with people that know the language. Once that happens, you'll pick it up very quickly. Bonus points if you fall in love with someone that doesn't speak your language — you'll be staggered at the speed that you learn it! 

The idea here is to put yourself as close to the language as possible. The closer and more engaged with it you are, the easier it becomes. 

A personal insight: I often find that when I have difficulties communicating, there are certain people that just "get me" with surprising accuracy, (especially after 15 or 20 minutes). Once people get accustomed to the tone of my voice (even if they don't understand it), my mannerisms and ways of moving, they'll often end up being able to understand complex ideas without words. 

If someone can understand you without speaking (or vice versa), it's a very accurate indicator of if you'd get on with them.

3. Take notes

Another option is to have a few pre-prepared notes if there is a specific situation that is scaring you (for example, buying a bus ticket in a small town with limited internet, or applying for visas). 

This is one way to lower anxiety in a particularly scary situation, but it isn't so effective for day to day use. Just jot down a few key points, or the first thing you want to say to give your confidence a boost.

I have to let you know that you will veer off of the notes very quickly, so don't write down an entire conversation (people are very good at doing the unexpected!).

4. Keep a positive mindset!

Learning a language is a very slow process. Be nice to yourself. You don't need to become fluent in a week, take it a step at a time. 

People are friendly, and they nearly always want to understand what you have to say. It's always easier when you assume this, so assume it! 

When you really believe that the person you are talking to wants to understand you, they'll probably end up understanding you. It's kind of strange to look at it like that, but it's absolutely true.

Also, you may like: How long does it take to learn a language?

5. Participate in language exchanges

These are worth their weight in gold. It's extremely easy to find people that want to learn English as it's so beneficial for international careers, and private tuition with a native speaker is out of the price range of many people (or it's simply not available).

A language exchange is not just a language exchange, it's a cultural one and to me, a way to break down cultural barriers (I even see it as a mini of diplomacy!). Keep the possibility in mind, be available, and you're likely to meet someone eager to share their language.

Apps to meet other travelers can help you here, but it's certainly worth keeping in mind that being a Worldpacker naturally lends itself to this kind of thing, as there is already a cultural exchange going on.

Interested in learning Spanish abroad? Check out these amazing Worldpackers travel experiences to help you learn Spanish for free

Curious about French, Portuguese, or Italian? Just use the filters on the side of the page to select the type of volunteer experience you want to have, and then filter through the hosts that offer language lessons during your stay! 

Whatever the language you're interested in learning, Worldpackers has an exchange opportunity that's right for you.

Keep this method in the back of your mind while you travel.

Language exchanges abroad

6. Adopt a 'learn it before you need it' mentality

There are a ton of resources out there. That doesn't always mean getting a dictionary or downloading an app, it just means doing what works best for you. 

Music, radio stations and YouTube videos are all fantastic ways to begin a new language, and many of these resources are free. I'd suggest picking one or two methods and experimenting from there. 

The easier and more enjoyable the process of picking up a new language is, the more likely that you'll stick with it.

7. Strategize

What do you want to learn? Are you planning to become fluent, or do you just want to be able to hold a basic conversation? Is it for work, for pleasure? Focus entirely on what you want to learn and go from there. 

If you're Worldpacking as a receptionist in a hostel, don't worry about learning all of the different animals, or how to count to a billion. You're better off knowing the days or the week and how to walk someone through a map to the nearest café. Make the process as relevant as possible.

There are a lot of situations where people expect to be approached, and if you can find an easier target to ask directions (for example), go for them instead. You're better off going for someone in a ticket office in a metro station as opposed to the person rushing by in a suit with a briefcase, on a phone. You want life to be easy, right?

8. Pay attention to visual cues

This does relate to body language somewhat, but is important enough to warrant its own space. Visual cues are great when used effectively. 

If you don't mind a bit of miming, this point alone can take you pretty far. It might sound cringey, but using your environment can really help too! 

Just be aware of the culture you are in and do any homework that you can. In certain cultures smiling doesn't indicate happiness, and in others pointing at people is a huge no-no. 

In general though, even basic visual queues are going to help you find necessities like a restroom, food, water or a place to sleep.

9. Be adaptive

One thing that many Worldpackers can relate to is that when traveling, the situation constantly changes. 

Sometimes, it is absolutely fine to let go. It's not always worth trying to push the same point if the bulk of your message has gotten through. 

Or, if you think that you're better off saying a polite thank you and going somewhere else for help, that's completely fine. Just read the situation you're in, and keep yourself in the best position you can.

10. Google it

You knew you'd see it eventually! Yes, Google Translate isn't perfect, but it can be an invaluable tool when you're in a pinch. 

You're not going to pick up a huge amount of the culture, but you can communicate with it when you have to. Especially with the capacity to convert what you say into text in a different language, you can feasibly have an entire conversation with someone without knowing a word (this one comes from personal experience).

Steps to overcoming language barriers

These tips have all been written assuming you want to make yourself understood, but it's certainly worth keeping in mind that many of them work when someone wants to communicate with you too!

No matter where you travel to, or who you communicate with, people are pretty similar. The most important thing by far is to have a willingness to understand and to be understood, and that will take you most of the way. 

To be a Worldpacker is all about getting enriching experiences, and if you can overcome the difficulties around communicating with someone that doesn't speak your language, then you're doing it! It's certainly not something to fear, and you'll find that once you are plunged into the situation, you'll adapt and pull through. 

Hopefully these steps for overcoming language barriers will prepare you for when the time comes!

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