Communicating with Locals: the 411

Free hugs in front of Sacre Cœur, Paris. December, 2015

Communicating overseas can be the most difficult part of your trip. Unless you already speak the local language. Let’s pretend, for argument’s sake, you don’t speak the local language. How do you overcome the language barrier?

Use hand signals or noises

The go-to for 99% of people (myself included). The other 1% being the people who continue to yell, thinking that speaking louder will somehow make the locals understand better… No. Just, no.

Hand signal examples are fairly universe: waves with your arm for the ocean, a plane with your hand for the airport, feign eating a bowl of cereal for a place to eat followed by saying “McDonald’s” repeatedly.

Ask simple questions

Chances are, the locals probably know a handful of words in English (within reason). I can promise you that they will appreciate this tip! It is MUCH easier for them to respond to a yes / no or simple choice question than an largely open ended question. Why? Because it requires less work on their part. They don’t have to worry about conjugating verbs and remembering the names of things (all under pressure) if you lay it all out for them.

Example: “Is this train to Cologne?” is easier than “Where does this train go?” – yes or no on their part.

or “Would you recommond the ‘gnocchi amatriciana’ or the ‘pizza prosciutto e funghi’ for lunch?” – simple response, which dish?

Have a written address

This one I cannot stress enough, especially when we rely so much on technology. Have a printed or handwritten addresss available to show a local or grab a cab if it’s late at night. You do NOT want to show up at 11:45pm to empty, foreign streets wandering around looking for your AirBnB host because you don’t have a written address (true story).

Draw a picture or take a picture beforehand


This one only works if the local knows the place. You can show them a picture, but they could be new (or just lame) and not know this super cool monument, waterfall,  restaurant, etc. But at least with a picture, they can show their buddy to ask him if he knows. Between a foreign accent and potentially a different alphabet (in Russia or China for example), a picture increases your likeliness of finding what you’re looking for.

Use a different, yet similar word

It’s reverse logic: using a cognate that’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but the same idea.

Example: You ask someone for the train station. In French, the train station is “la gare.” Instead, you could ask for the “train” which is also “train” in French (with their pronunciation of course).

I would preface this tip with the fact that it might require some language research beforehand. But if all else fails, use the translate app that you downloaded from the handy dandy essential travel apps guide to help you find the right word.


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