Overcoming the language barrier: How to navigate a city when everyone is 'talking foreign'

2018-11-09 10:28 - Marisa Crous
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Cityscape Hong Kong and Junkboat at Twilight

The Hong Kong cityscape and junkboat at twilight (Photo: iStock

Countries like Turkey, Morocco, Thailand, Brazil and China are all hot destinations, but these counties' proficiency in English is either rated as low or very low. 

Being lost in translation can be a) frustrating, b) disorientating and c) dangerous in some cases. Frustrating because you might be eager to learn something from a native, or ask something very specific - or basic even - and not understand the answer, or even worse, get no answer at all.

Disorientating, as you might get seriously lost.

And dangerous, because you could end up eating something you're allergic to as many countries, like China only have its menus in the local language. 

READ: Lucky enough to have dual citizenship? Tips for travelling with two passports 

For the same reason, travelling in countries with little to no proficiency in English is also extra tricky for vegans and vegetarians.

Here are a few tips on how to overcome the language barrier when travelling: 

Go old school

Actually learn a new language beforehand. Even if that means learning key phrases, hopping onto language learning app Duolingo to learn the basics, or actually going for classes; this is probably still the best way to go if you really want your visit to be smooth sailing. 

Though you might be lost in translation at first, you can also opt to go live and work in another country for a while, this is a great way to 'force' yourself to adopt a new language and be absorbed by the culture from within. 

Non-verbal communication 

Do some research on 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' body language before travelling. Non-verbal communication goes a long way, like eye contact and facial expressions when conversing with people. And body language is not interpreted the same the world over.  

For example, according to Virtual Speech, the 'OK' sign means different things in different countries. In the West, it means something is okay, but in Greece, Spain and Brazil it means you are calling someone a "butthole".

In Turkey, it is used to insult homosexual people. 

Sitting cross-legged in Japan is seen as disrespectful, while it's a perfectly acceptable way of sitting in most other countries. 

And when it comes to silence, in places like the UK and US it's predominantly understood as a sign that something is problematic, while in China it's often used to show agreement.

Beijing city night panorama

(Bustling Beijing. PHOTO: iStock) 


Google Translate, always your friend. But probably the coolest piece of tech out there right now is the already-launched Pilot and also the upcoming Aibuds.

TIP: Be sure to download apps like Waygo when heading to countries like China where Google is not allowed to instantly translate Chinese, Japanese and Korean.  

Pilot is specially designed earbuds that capture speech with high definition clarity and promises accurate translations into 15 languages and 42 dialects.

WATCH: What are a South African? 

The Aibuds will also be wireless, wearable language translation earbuds featuring nearly real-time speech translation (into 36 languages and dialects).

See more on their website.

You can also use the Japanese ili, an instant offline translation device. No internet required! 


All three these devices cost between $129 and $199 (approximately R1 800-R2 800).

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