Language Schools

5 Simple Tips for Overcoming Language Barriers While Traveling

Olivia Christine Perez
Topic Expert

Traversing the globe as a writer and marketing consultant, Olivia writes for Go Overseas about topics including gap years and general travel advice.

Communication is an important aspect to consider when you decide to take an international gap year or study abroad. While you might be up to date on the easiest (and most cost-effective) ways to keep in touch with friends and family back home, have you figured out how you will manage traveling to countries where locals might not speak your language?

You'll find learning the local language can make your experience abroad much more enjoyable.

How will you meet new people? How will you get around? How will you shop or ask for directions? Before you worry too much, consider these five tips for overcoming language barriers when you go overseas. You'll find learning the local language can make your experience abroad much more enjoyable.

Let's get to it; how to overcome a language barrier:

1. Download a Language App and Learn On The Go

My absolute favorite mobile app to use while traveling overseas (especially visiting countries where English is not an official or secondary language) is called Duolingo.

It is a zero-cost app (and is still ad-free, thank goodness) that I stumbled upon a few years ago that makes learning a new language fun. Seriously, I play it all the time and have seen impressive improvements in my language skills.

I have used it for French and Spanish (as well as Dutch, before I realized people spoke English perfectly well in The Netherlands, so there’s that) and found it to be an extremely entertaining program that offers lessons, grading, assessment tests (in case you're more advanced and need to skip a few levels), and “attendance” (activity records and notifications that call you out when you haven’t played in a while).

The best part about it: the Duolingo app offers English-speakers 27 languages to choose from, including the world’s most spoken languages -- so you’ll likely be in good shape. For on-the-go use, Duolingo is available for download on Android, iPhone, and Windows phones.

2. Bring a Language Dictionary to Improve Your Vocabulary

If you are super nervous about drawing a blank when it comes to recalling vocab words from your freshly-learned lingual skills, bring a language dictionary with you when you are out and about.

You can either purchase a physical book (they sell large and pocket-sized ones at bookstores or online) that offers the English definitions of words from the language of your choice on one side, and the inverse on the other side.

Another dictionary option would be to download the Google Translate app for free (iPhone | Android). Now, now… please do not try to use this to translate full sentences (or your language homework / important letters). No matter how many times I warn people not to rely on translate too heavily, there is always one person who takes the chance and ends up horribly embarrassing themselves by inputting colloquial idioms that don’t translate respectfully. Yikes.

3. Invest in Language Supplies and Take Advantage of Spontaneous Conversation

What are language supplies, you ask? It’s simply stationery.

Have you ever been in a situation where you have no phone service or WiFi, forgot your language dictionary book, and have no way to communicate with someone you just met? You should always carry a writing utensil and paper with you in case you ever need to write down an address you can’t pronounce (and communicate it to the taxi driver) or play a game of Pictionary to tell your new friend what kind of food you would like to have for dinner. Can you charade “pizza”? I didn’t think so.

Whenever I travel, I find it most enjoyable to practice speaking a foreign language when I am with locals.

Pick the cutest (or coolest) stationary you can find so you don’t feel like you’re a reporter -- unless that’s your thing, which is fine -- and keep it stored with your wallet so you’ll never forget it nor miss out on new conversations due to a language barrier.

Another option is to have a pocket picture dictionary -- especially if your drawing of a cup of coffee looks more like an indiscernible blob. Point It is a pocket-sized picture dictionary used by the UN.

4. Sign Up for Language School Overseas

If you are really serious about learning a new language, look into a program abroad that will feed your need for exploration and help you speak to locals with ease.

While you can’t learn a language overnight, you can choose to invest your time (and money) into immersing yourself in local culture while mastering a new language.

Go Overseas has an entire section dedicated to finding foreign language schools abroad, which covers 11 languages and counting (including English). You can search for a school by language or country and browse programs that are a good fit for you.

Think study abroad program fees are astronomical? It doesn’t have to be. If you are concerned about costs, choose to learn a language in countries that have a more affordable cost of living. The language school fees are likely to also be less costly and you won't have to spend as much along the way.

For example, if you want to learn Spanish at a budget destination, countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia are a better fit in terms of pricing than Spain. Consider program price, location, and living costs when making your choice.

5. Leverage Local Friendships and Become Mutual Teachers

Whenever I travel, I find it most enjoyable to practice speaking a foreign language when I am with locals. While dialects can change by the region, learning from a local is still great practice.

Learning language in school or online is useful and essential, but you have to eventually put it to real use or you’ll never get used to listening and comprehending at normal speeds, much less being able to actually reply back.

Regardless of your choice, each way is a special method to get you connected with sites, cultures, and people around the world.

One way I learn with locals is by becoming mutual instructors through a language exchange. More often than not, the person also wants to learn English (or practice it, if they already know). We all love to learn new phrases and slang words, so why not share them with each other?

Locals will also tell you how to interact with taxi drivers, shop owners, and peddlers, as well as the hustle and bustle of everyday foot traffic. You can tell them the “cool” English words that are equivalent to the phrases you just learned and joke about the awkward direct translations that you’ll likely encounter. It's so much fun!

Bottom line, don't shy away from meeting a new person overseas and sharing your interest in their home language! They’ll appreciate you respecting their country enough to want to learn and feel proud to share their culture with you.

How Will You Overcome Language Barriers Overseas?

Learning a new language can help you think in new ways, leverage your resume, improve your writing style (and maybe even your vocabulary!), boost your memory, meet new people, and return home feeling super cool and eager to teach your friends and family.

Which one is your favorite method for learning a foreign language while traveling? Will you try the mobile route, or go all out and dedicate a few weeks to attending a language school?

Regardless of your choice, each way is a special method to get you connected with sites, cultures, and people around the world.