korea, Life Abroad, travel

No Hablo: Seven Tips to Effectively Communicate When You Don’t Speak the Local Language

I’ll let you in on a little secret: if you’re reading this, you are already way ahead of the curve.

There are roughly 360 million native English speakers globally, and an estimate of over one billion English learners. That means that around twenty percent of the world can speak at least a bit of English. Your chances of finding someone who speaks the same language as you is increased even more if stick to the more touristic locations.

However, speaking English while traveling isn’t always an option, and speaking English fluently is even less of one. Here are a few tips to help you out on your travels in order to communicate with those around you.


  1. Simplify, simplify

You know all those SAT words you now use to impress that cute nerdy girl you have a crush on? Throw those out. Simplify your words as much as possible. Now is not the time to show off.

In addition to simplifying your words, simplify your sentences. At its base, a sentence in English needs a subject and a verb. That’s it. If you’re communicating with a low-level speaker, it’s essentially all you need. Quite often, you can get by with just nouns or verbs by themselves. “I’m very thirsty and would like a glass of water” can be reduced to “water,” or “oh my god there’s an angry swarm of bees that’s coming right towards us” can be summarized quite concisely as “BEES.”

2. Slow down

This one should be self-evident. Speak slowly and clearly. Try to enunciate your words as clearly as possible.

3. Jokes, metaphors, cultural references, and slang have to go

Humor is something that translates differently to each culture. It can easily fall flat or be misunderstood. In the worst-case scenario, you can deeply offend someone and be thrown screaming into the sacrificial volcano in order to appease the old gods.

Metaphors are so pervasive in English that we almost forget that we’re using them. English speakers suffer from broken hearts and cold feet. We pass tests with flying colors or sometimes things can snowball out of control, especially if you’re on a slippery slope. People might face off against bad apples in a catch-22. The list goes on, and a lot of it is nonsense to non-native speakers. Do your best not to use these.

Have you ever talked to a teenager and found yourself bewildered by their word choices and slang? Yeah. Imagine how much worse it would be if they were doing it in a foreign language. Make an effort to identify what’s slang or a cultural reference and try not to go there, Glen Coco.

4. Body language

Body language is surprisingly universal. Even if you’re traveling through a country where you don’t know a single word, if you hold your crotch and jump around a bit, someone will probably catch on that you urgently need a toilet without you saying a word.

5. Use Phrasebooks / Internet / Writing

There is no shame in using a phrasebook or Google translate (which, by the way, has vastly improved in the past few years). If you have no idea how to pronounce what’s on the screen or in the book, just point and look hopeful. This will get you far in life.

A lot of people learn English in school – that is to say, an academic setting where speaking isn’t always emphasized a lot. If saying a word isn’t getting your point across, try writing it down or typing it out.

6. Check for understanding (without being condescending)

Be honest: have you ever not heard someone when they’re talking, but smiled and nodded along anyway? I know I have, and that’s while still speaking my mother tongue. When speaking a foreign language, I’ve often felt grateful when the other speaker pauses to ask me if I understood everything. It gives me an easy out, if I need one, and means that things don’t get too advanced with me having no idea what’s going on.

Of course, the level of your speaker affects how you can go about doing this. If they speak little or no English, you can do this by simply gesturing, coupled with a simple word like “okay.” If they speak a higher level of English, you can clarify words or concepts more.

However, try not to be a condescending asshat about it.

Once, one of my Korean friends was driving through Hawaii when she stopped to ask a man directions. Instead of just answering her, he asked “do you speak English?”

Let me say this. There is nothing wrong with asking someone if they speak English, especially if you’re traveling. However, she was in Hawaii. She spoke to him in English – albeit with an adorable Korean accent. The man was trying to check for understanding, but the way he went around it was incredibly condescending. Don’t be like him.


I have seen a lot of people turn into flaming assholes impolite while trying to communicate with others who don’t speak the same language. I get it: they’re frustrated. However, that’s no reason to take it out on another person, or shame them for not understanding you. Communication is a two-way street, and you can’t lay all of the blame on another person.


Do you have any other tips for how to get your point across while traveling? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “No Hablo: Seven Tips to Effectively Communicate When You Don’t Speak the Local Language”

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