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How to Bridge the Language Barrier

How do you make conversation when you don't speak the language? A AAA Travel counselor offers a few tips. 

hand guesture for only a little bit, image
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Photo: VGstockstudio
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If you don't speak the local language, try using a hand gesture to let them know you only want a little bit.

With more than 150 commonly spoken languages in the world, it’s no wonder international travelers can sometimes feel stymied by the local lingo. But there’s no need to worry. As AAA Travel counselor Judie Pivarnik explains, a lack of language skills shouldn’t keep you from traveling to a place you’ve always dreamed of visiting. Resourceful travelers can find ways to bridge the communication gap. Here are just a few.

  • Hit the books Before leaving home, bone up on your destination’s phrases for hello, please, and thank you, or delve deeper with language classes or do-it-yourself lessons. Using even simple verbal courtesies shows an appreciation of the local culture and can help smooth rough spots in communication.
  • Gather your tools Put your smartphone or tablet to work. Numerous apps convert typed or spoken words to or from English. Not the tech type? Phrase books and point-to-it picture dictionaries work wonders, as do a pen and pocket notebook for Pictionary-style drawings.
  • Get it in writing Carry a card with your hotel’s contact info written in local fashion, especially in countries that don’t use the Latin alphabet, Pivarnik suggests. And before venturing out to explore, ask the concierge to write the name and address of your sightseeing destination.
  • Use body language Don’t be shy about miming and gesturing to convey your meaning—hand signals are sometimes worth weeks of language lessons. And remember the most widely appreciated body language of all: a warm, relaxed smile.
  • Enlist the experts If all this extroverted activity seems too daunting, consider booking an escorted tour—AAA Vacations offers a wide variety. Or hire local guides at each stop who can assist with translation and help prevent cross-cultural misunderstandings. “You get much more out of a trip when you’re accompanied by someone who speaks the language and knows the local scene,” Pivarnik says.

This article was first published in July 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.