Viajes al extranjero: ¿qué puedo hacer si no conozco el idioma?

When traveling to another country whose language we hardly know or we only speak in a few words, but we do not master… how can we make ourselves understood without going through a hard time? Many people are overwhelmed by the prospect of being awkward when speaking to the locals, afraid of sounding macaronic, barely stammering a few words in their native language or avoiding contact with foreigners if such is possible. It is clear that learning English – thanks to the courses abroad of International House Madrid for adults or study abroad programmes for young learners, without going any further, will allow us to move with some ease in a good part of the countries that we want to visit. But… what should we do when we come across people who don’t speak it? Or when we know English, but we don’t have a sufficient level to defend ourselves on a trip? Here are some tips that may be useful when you abandon the safety of Spanish:


express yourself with conviction

Try to speak with as much poise as you can muster, clearly and firmly. It is not always easy, since the fact of not knowing a language and being in a foreign country often causes insecurity. However, keep in mind that giving in to her will lead you to a vicious circle: the more insecure you appear, the less what you mean will be understood , and the conversation will end up being awkward or full of misunderstandings. It is better to pronounce a simple sentence, but with firmness and an appearance of security, than to try to elaborate a complex thought and do it with a shaky voice and stumbling. In most everyday situations you will only need to make simple requests–buy food, ask for a place, say hello, say thank you, etc.-, so it is best to present them in English -or Spanish, as the case may be- as clear as possible and be very direct. You will often be surprised how many people understand you quite well despite the language barrier, thanks to a few familiar words or the context in which a question is asked.

listen very carefully

This seems very obvious, but it is very common that when someone finds it difficult to understand someone else’s conversation in another language, they give up and assume that they are not going to understand anything. Error: Most likely, almost imperceptibly, as you stay aware for a few days, some words and linguistic patterns start to look familiar to you. If you keep your ears open and spend a few days listening to others talk, you’ll end up intuiting much more than you thought thanks to the context or certain similarities between languages ​​that you didn’t know before, and you’ll feel less left out of any talk. It takes patience and willpower, but the effort is well worth it. And, by the way, you will be more seasoned if before the trip you have listened to music or seen movies in the language of the country you are going to travel to. 

gesture language is almost as important as verbal

And we are not referring only to the most obvious signs that can be done with the hands, but to facial expressions, postures, gestures of comfort or discomfort, etc. In many conversations, paying attention to the body language of your interlocutor can be essential to understand a good part of the conversation. Paying attention to how each person accompanies their sentences with certain gestures or facial expressions is a good way to decipher her speech. The same goes for you: if you are a person with a certain amount of self-confidence, use all the gestures that can help you make your awkward conversation more intelligible. Be careful, however, and find out a little about certain cultural peculiarities, especially when it comes to countries for which you barely have data, sinceyou could misinterpret the signals they send you, or make inappropriate gestures . For example, thumbs up is a gesture of approval in most Western countries, but in the Middle East it has an offensive meaning; If you want to know what we mean, read this list in which they talk about that gesture and many others: it is an exciting topic that we will try to address in a future article.

When in doubt, be courteous

Don’t be afraid of being polite. If you do not know well the customs in the treatment of the region to which you travel, it is better to treat yourself and whoever you meet with formality, whatever social position you have . It is possible that familiarity or informality are not common currency in some countries, and you may find yourself involved in an uncomfortable situation for a trifle of this type (although it is usual for tourists to overlook these errors), so the most sensible option is to become a real Ned Flanders. Perhaps your excessive zeal in your dealings will cause some laughter or humorous comments, but it is the toll to pay if one wants to avoid being perceived as a tactless lout.

Be a person of resources and park the shame

A particularly delicate moment is usually ordering food in a restaurant. It is often difficult for us to know what the menu of certain very chic restaurants consists of, even when it is written in our own language –“deconstructed pheasant on a bed of potato starch”, for example-, so doing it in a country that is alien becomes a titanic challenge. A friend of mine who traveled to rural China explained that his approach was to browse the other tables in the restaurant until he found an appetizing dish; All he had to do was point at it to indicate to the waiter that he wanted one just like it. In fact, on  this website  they even recommend going to the kitchen and pointing out the ingredients that you want without any shame.; Apparently, it is not something unusual, and for example in China they will find it natural for tourists to use devices like these. Another idea that can work for you is to use your mobile to search for images of the dish you want ; they may not have it, but chances are the bartender understands where the shots are going and will find you something similar. Although we have focused on food, almost all of this is applicable to the most delicate situations in which we may find ourselves abroad.

Make use of technology at your fingertips

In some cases all the above advice will remain on paper, you will get nervous or make a mess and you will need to get out of the way. No problem: the days of lugging around a five-pound dictionary, a clunky electronic translator, and a tabloid-sized map are long gone. Now, everything you need fits on a mobile phone, and some applications for it will make your life easier . The most obvious? Google Maps or a similar program, with which you will save a thousand and one directions to get to the place you are looking for. If you do not want to spend data rates, choose to download them before making the trip.

The translators available on the internet will be your best friends when the rest of the resources that we have proposed lead you to the dead end. Some translation apps , like S Translator , will allow you to use your mobile camera to focus on a text and get an instant translation. Others, like Speak & Translate , function as a simultaneous translator for spoken language. Although the ideal is to make an effort with the language and use these tricks only when everything else fails , it never hurts to know all the resources at our disposal. We recommend that you take a look at any list of applications for travelers ( this one , for example) before taking the plane: you will be surprised to discover how many of them exist. 

Do you have any homegrown tips or tricks? If so, share it with us in the comments. Thanks and have a nice trip!

At International House Madrid you can not only learn English, but also English, French, Italian, German or Chinese , so we are sure that our courses will allow you to firmly set foot on the five continents. Check our website to discover the English course, or French or German that best suits your needs, and sign up for our courses abroad to have a great summer and learn languages.

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