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Handling Language Barriers while Traveling

Would you like to hear a story about how I ended up on a field trip in rural Quebec with a Peanut Butter and HAM Sandwich for lunch?

I knew you would.  When I was in grade 10, I participated in a French Language Exchange through my high school, which was sponsored by the Government of Canada.  We were matched up with an exchange student, and they spent a week in Kelowna, BC with us and our families, and then we spent a week in Baie Comeau, Quebec with them and their families.  I was picking up on french quickly, but one day, when my exchange mother was making our lunches for a field trip to the aluminum mine, I forgot the word for “jam”.  (It’s ‘confiture’.)  Anyway, I kept saying that I wanted a “Sandwich beurre d’arachide et JAM.”  As it turns out, the french word for ham is “jambon”, so she thought I was trying to ask for a peanut butter and HAM sandwich.  She looked at me like I was an alien as she assembled the grotesque meal, and I didn’t have the heart to stop her.

It can be really difficult to keep your vocabulary straight when you have traveled to several countries that all speak different languages.  Actually, it can be really difficult to travel in countries that speak different languages, period.  If you’re new to the game of language barriers, you’re in for quite the experience.



My top 5 tips, tried, tested and true, for embracing the challenges of multi-lingual adventure.


1. Memorize Basic Phrases

Before I travel someplace that doesn’t use english as a first language, I try to set aside a few minutes every day leading up to my departure to practice memorizing basic phrases of the country.  Even just being able to say Hello, Please and Thank You in another language can be extremely helpful and will help to gain the respect of the locals.  However, if you want to take it one step further, learn how to say things that you might use frequently, such as “Do you Speak English?”, “I do not speak Spanish”, “Where is the Toilet” and “How much is this?”


2. Keep a “Cheat Sheet” on you for emergencies

Once you’ve memorized your basic phrases, you may want to write a few more phrases down on a small piece of paper that you can keep in your wallet just in case.  Things like numbers from 1-10, how to ask for directions, how to explain any special needs or circumstances that you may have or anything related to the travel process itself will be valuable.  I usually carry around a very small notebook and pencil in my bag so that, if worst comes to worst, you can write things down in attempts to communicate with someone.  This can be especially helpful when hiring a taxi in parts of the world where you have to agree on a price before you leave.  That way, the driver cannot claim to have said a different amount.  (ie. fifteen becomes fifty).

Our german home stay dad, Wolfgang - Ellwangen, Germany
Our german home stay dad, Wolfgang – Ellwangen, Germany


3. Have a Sense of Humour

I once received a question via email asking “is it awkward when you can’t understand somebody?”  Of course it’s awkward!  But it’s life!  It’s just as much a part of travel as losing your luggage or being taught how to swear in German.  People will laugh at you.  People may even get frustrated or upset with you.  But most people are generally very understanding, and just as confused as you.  Try to keep your heart light and laugh it off when things get uncomfortable.


4. Get Comfortable with Charades

You will inevitably have to act out certain things on your travels, so just come to terms with it now.  Here are just a few examples of things I have had to act out for an unfortunate crowd of onlookers; “Where is the toilet”, “May I have a napkin”, “Is there a Bank nearby” and “Do you sell finger condoms” (that last one was super awkward trying to act out in multuple Thai pharmacies in Ao Nang when Sean severely injured his toe!).

A selection of my favourite menu translations from Thailand. They are partial to “Vagtables”, and I do NOT want to know what “Mental Cheese” is…


5. Try Not to get Frustrated

It is easy to get overwhelmed when you’re first adjusting to a new place with a new language.  You’re most likely overtired, jet lagged, hungry, and craving something that you can’t get in the country you’re in.  I vividly remember having a full blown meltdown in the middle of a roadside cafeteria-style restaurant somewhere in Germany because I didn’t understand how the lineup for the salad bar worked.  Just try to take some deep breaths, collect your thoughts, and remember that humans are mostly good and willing to help.  And even if you do make a fool of yourself, chances are that you will never, ever see those people again anyway.  And if you do have to see them again, you’ll have made a new friend who speaks another language!

Our lovely volunteer coordinators in Bali
Our lovely volunteer coordinators in Bali


What are some of the ways that you handle language barriers when you travel?

Ashley Dempster is a twenty-something Canadian Travel and Adventure blogger based in Calgary, Canada. Her passions include good food, minimalist packing, running, music, and chasing down every opportunity for adventure.


  1. Great list of advice! What I found useful was learning a language prior to travelling (at least the very basics of a language). I practiced my French on DuoLingo for a few weeks before leaving for Paris. Mind you, we were obligated to learn French in school (go Canada!), so some terms did come back to me… but still! Learning a bit of the language will definitely get you by when readings signs or the menu in a foreign land.

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