Traveling to a foreign land is a life-changing experience. A whole new world opens up to you as you dive into a new culture, step inside an entirely new environment, and see how people do things differently from what you’re accustomed to. 

However, there’s one obstacle that could keep you from really getting your feet wet; the language barrier. 

If only you could speak and understand all languages known to man. 

Overcoming language barriers is a challenge, but it should not stop you from ‘conquering’ the world. 

Here are four simple tips you need to know to help you overcome language barriers while traveling.

1. Know basic words and phrases to get by

You don’t need to be an expert in a new language before you travel. If you wait that long, you could end up not traveling at all. It helps to know even a few basic words or phrases before travelling to another country.

In most places around the world, you’d get by well if you know English or Spanish, which are two of the most commonly spoken languages. When traveling to Amsterdam or elsewhere in the Netherlands, you shouldn’t worry because the Dutch know their English and love conversing with Americans.

At any rate, however, learning basic words even when traveling to a part of the world where English is generally widely understood or spoken. Perhaps the most straightforward and helpful words and phrases to learn are:

  • Hello
  • Goodbye
  • Thank you
  • Do you speak English?
  • Please repeat that slowly
  • Where is the toilet?
  • I’m allergic to… 
  • How much?

A few words and phrases to use daily will suffice.

Other useful words to know are ‘bathroom’, ‘water’, ‘gluten”, and ‘nice dog’.

  • Practice with friends and family

Before you travel, spend some time talking with friends, family, or acquaintances from your country of destination or perhaps have visited there before. You will learn a thing or two from them.

  • Practice with an app

If there’s no one around to help you, turn to technology. There are plenty of apps nowadays that can introduce you to a new language and help you practice and pronounce basic words. Look around for what helps overcome language barriers.

Try Duolingo, a free app that tests your knowledge in several languages, including French and Spanish, or Word Lens, an app that immediately translates a foreign word when you hover over it with your smartphone.

2. Listen closely and imitate

Have you ever wondered why babies are experts in learning a language? From the minute they are born, they begin hearing words, observing how words are spoken, and trying to imitate them. 

In most cases, saying the right words isn’t as crucial as saying them correctly. It helps to observe how people in your destination interact and communicate. Placing or changing emphasis to a word’s syllables could entirely change the meaning of the same word.

Another reason you should listen closely is that sometimes words and phrases don’t mean the same thing in different places, even in English-speaking countries. 


For example, if you’re traveling to Australia, they’re well-known for their slang,  which can be confusing for many people. One example is “Biccy,” which means “Biscuit.”

The Queen’s English can also be confusing to Americans and other nationals that are more familiar with American English. 

The British would say:

  • Holiday > vacation’
  • Lift > elevator 
  • Underground > subway
  • Queue > line
  • Serviette > napkin
  • Loo > restroom or bathroom

Knowing these words can save you a lot of trouble.

  • Speak closely and use visual cues

Try to jump into conversations with them, but speak slowly and use visual cues. If you’re lucky enough to find someone who speaks English or your native language, always speak slowly and using basic words. Don’t use slang, and don’t shout at the person when trying to be more articulate.

Try articulating each syllable or letter and playing charades to support your points. 

For example, when asking a stranger to take your picture, you can gesture to them what you would want them to, or sometimes even just pointing to your camera would do.

Another good and practical idea is to carry a pen and paper with you. Draw a picture of what you want to convey or write a foreign word that you have learned but could not pronounce properly.

3. Use a foreign language dictionary or a free language app

Modern technology and the internet address most of man’s problems these days, including troubles when traveling. International tourists used to carry bulky dictionaries and flip through the pages when trying to communicate with locals. Today, there are free language apps at your disposal.

One of the most popular apps for an iPhone or Android smartphone is Google Translate. The app supports over 50 languages and allows you to type in entire phrases. Google Translate talks back to you with easy and understandable audio features that teach you to pronounce words and entire phrases.

If you still can’t say the words, just play the app and ask someone to listen to the audio for better communication.

However, even the best of apps may come up with awkward translations and pronunciations. Yet, overall, they can help convey the general idea of what you want to say. 

Generally, locals can be forgiving to foreigners anyway and are ready to help. 

Aside from Google Translate, you could also try iTranslate, Voice Translator, TripLingo, and The Word Point.

  • Stay connected

In most major tourist cities in the world, getting connected is not a problem.  In other words, you can tap into all sorts of language-barrier support apps from anywhere, anytime. Also, everything that you want to know about your location is at your fingertips, literally, on your smartphone.

  • Good old-fashioned books

The only downside to technology is that batteries die, and an internet connection can be unreliable. Just to be sure, always bring with you a pocket dictionary or phrasebook. You could even just scribble some important words and phrases on a piece of paper that you can pull out anytime. Make your cue cards, notecards, or a stack of index cards with sentences that you can show people to let them know what you want to say.

Photo by Gio Mikava on Unsplash

4. Learn non-spoken gestures

If still worried about the language barrier, then turn to the universal language – non-verbal communication techniques, such as personal space, facial expressions, and hand gestures. Be mindful of these signals as they change depending on where you are in the world.

Smiling, for example, may be understood as a rude facial expression in some parts of the world. This can come as a surprise because Westerners assume that a smile can always bring warmth and spur friendship. However, in Japan and Russia, a smile is sometimes considered insincere and impolite. Russians only smile when they are really happy.

Another confusing gesture is head nodding. Americans usually bob their heads up and down to say ‘yes’. This may seem like an easy-to-understand non-verbal cue. However, a single nod upward in Greece and Turkey actually means, ‘no’.


The same is true when giving someone a thumbs up. For Americans and most Europeans, signaling a thumbs-up means giving your approval. But in some parts of the world, the thumbs-up is actually a vulgar gesture.

Observing gestures in another country could spell the difference as you communicate and establish relationships. They can also help you identify different types of language barriers. 

For example, you could easily sense when the other person is not interested in you when you have a different view of the world, when someone has violated an emotional taboo, or is actually suffering from hearing/speech impairment. 

In other words, when communicating, listen well not just with your ears but also with your eyes and your sixth sense.

There you go, four simple tips could mean the world when you travel to a foreign land.  Modern travelers should be thankful that there are now apps designed to break the language barrier.

Take advantage of technology when you travel and have fun along the way. Talk to people, show yourself out there, make friends, and establish relationships. It doesn’t matter if sometimes you get lost in translation; the point of traveling in the first place is to discover something new. So, if everything else fails, just have fun and be sincere when engaging with people.

Learn more travel tips here at Ask the Dutch Guy. Browse our other topics today!