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How to Travel Where You Do Not Speak the Language

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ANTIGUA, Guatemala- I know bits and scraps of many foreign languages, a couple of which I claim to know reasonably well, but even still there have been times that I have crossed a border into a new country and realized with a start that I could not speak nor understand a word of any language any person was speaking. And there has also been many times when nobody could understand a single word that I could mutter in any tongue accessible to me.

I think this may be a nightmare scenario for many would be travelers, it is my impression that this is one of the main questions people have before venturing off on their first independent journey abroad:

How to travel in a place where you can’t understand the language?

I even asked myself this question as a teenager with traveler aspirations, how am I going to survive where nobody understands my words. I imagined myself walking from place to place in some dusty African village setting saying “food, food, water, water” with my hand up to my mouth beggar style.

I did not know then how easy traveling is where you can’t understand the language. The solution is simple:

Use a notebook.

Wade taking notes in Jordan

China is a country that has many different dialects, many different languages. Before recent years, when a standard Mandarin language has been pushed all over the country, the only way for the Chinese to communicate with people from other regions of their country was through the standardized writing system. They used notebooks.

The notebook method of communicating is often only a temporary solution that only has real use upon initially entering a country, as it is not very difficult to learn number words and a few simple phrases in any language, but it is a good way to get your footing in a new land. This tip works on the premise that the people you want to talk with can write numbers and read place names — most people in the world, especially those who have a reason to interact with you, can.

What you really NEED to communicate when traveling is incredibly simple, and 90% of the time circumstance shows the topic that you wish to communicate or understand clearly. It is just the specifics of which that is left a little opaque. In this situation, the notebook can be used as a device to clear away the clouds, clean the lens, and confirm the specifics of the deal you are engaging in.

I just entered Guatemala, and rode in a minibus from the airport to Antigua. Other foreigners were my fellow passengers, one of them could not speak a word of Spanish. He got into the bus without understanding how much he was suppose to pay, and he paid double.

I speak Spanish reasonably well, but when I am in a similar situation as the guy from this anecdote above, I confirm the price on paper before committing to paying. I haggle a good price in the notebook, and come to an agreement that both myself and the driver agree upon. If you don’t know how to say “How much is it?” in a language that can be mutually intelligible, then rub your fingers together in the international sign for “money,” slap a question mark look on your face, and indicate that you want the person to write the amount down in your notebook (give him a pencil to do so).

Notebook Wade uses when traveling

I keep a little black notebook in the breast pocket of my shirt at all times, this is where I take the notes that are eventually transformed into travelogue entries. But this notebook also serves the function of giving me an easy place to confirm the prices of things, ask directions to places, as well as serving as a platform to have many simple words written down in the local language — such as “bus station,” “train station,” “bathroom,” “how much money?” and on and on — that I can easily point to when the need arises.

Using a notebook when buying something

I don’t guess at prices, I don’t just hand money over in hopes of getting change. No, when I don’t understand a person’s words, I confirm the price in writing before paying. I indicate what it is that I want to buy, use some language or pantomime to indicate that I am asking the price — or have this written in the local language in the notebook — and carry out the negotiation in writing: the vendor writes down a number, I cross it out with the number I am willing to pay, and it goes back and forth. In this way, everything is clear for both parties: the vendor knows how much money to expect and the buyer knows how much money to pay.

Negotiation for a price in Haiti

Most people in the transportation, commerce, or tourist industries of the world can understand the words, “How much money?,” “how much?” or just “money????,” in either English, French, or Spanish. And most travelers can have basic communication in all three of these world languages. So asking how much money something costs is not hard to do, but it is sometimes difficult to understand the response. The idea is that if you can get the person you are talking with to understand that you are asking a price, the response can easily be written down on paper, and you can negotiate from there:

You cross out their price, write down your own, they cross out your price and write their counter offer, until you reach an agreement.

This is the best way that I have found to travel in a country where I do not know the language, or am hazy on the exact price someone is saying, or I am in a sketchy circumstance and I want to have confirmation of a price in writing.

It is my impression that having the price written down is vastly better than asking “How much is it?” and then getting frustrated with the vendor when you can’t understand their response.

I must admit that I have rarely before seen a traveler using a notebook to negotiate a price in a circumstance where they can’t speak the language. It is much more common to see tourists yelling “How much is it!?!” at a person over and over again until they magically learn how to respond in English or the tourist just hands over any amount of money in the hope of it being enough.

It is my feeling that the notebook method for determining price is efficient, clear, and practical — it is a way to get through the confusing turns in travel when you first enter a new region.

Using a notebook to ask directions

I also don’t like walking around asking directions to places that I cannot yet properly pronounce the names of, ever hoping that the next person that I ask will understand my brutalized pronunciation. Before I learn how to pronounce the place names on a map, which often only takes a day or two, I will copy out the words of where I want to go in the notebook and then stick it in a local person’s face in an attempt to get them to teach me how to say the mysterious words, or point out the direction I should travel in.

Finding out how to pronounce the name of this city in Haiti and how much it costs to get there

If I am in a region where I cannot read the local writing — such as in Arabic speaking countries — I find someone (usually a person who works at the hotel I stay at) to write down essential place names and phrases into my notebook in the mystery writing. I will then write in Roman letters what these words mean, and thus have a little language guide.

So if I need to take a taxi to a certain bus station, I have these directions written out in the notebook before entering into negotiations with the taxi driver.

This method can backfire, as you really have no clue what is being written into your notebook, so I make sure I choose my informants wisely.

Conclusion

There are many other uses for a notebook when traveling in a place where you do not understand the language, but the methodology is similar to the above scenarios.

The notebook method works well, but it quickly looses its pertinence the more you travel in a country. It is not difficult to learn the essential phrases, words, and numbers of a foreign language. I learned to read and pronounce Mongolian Cyrillic in under an hour a few years ago. Learning language is part of the skill set needed for travel, using a notebook is not meant to make me lazy, but to get me through the opening days of traveling in a new region.

After two or three days, I feel a responsibility to keep the notebook sheathed and make myself learn the pertinent bits of the language of the country I am traveling in. It does not take many days of traveling before you can verbally say, “How much does this cost?” and seamlessly understand the response, or say “Where is the bus to _____ ?” and be able to understand the directions well enough.

Though for a few days in a new country this notebook method makes traveling a vastly easier, cheaper, and less stressful endeavor, the notebook can create a way to clearly and confidently communicate through the twists and turns of travel with people whom you share no mutually intelligible language.

Read more Travel Tips on Vagabond Journey.com

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Filed under: Language, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap