Author: Bernadine Racoma

How to Talk with Locals Who Can’t Speak Your Language

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

When you travel to destinations in different parts of the world, there is the real possibility that the locals may not understand English (or the language you are using). This particularly happens in remote, underdeveloped, and less frequented tourist spots.

If you go to these kinds of locations, you need to be ready for a steeper language barrier.

The following guide should help you communication with locals who don’t know any of the languages you use.

1. Memorize common conversations in the local language.

You are the outlander; you should be the one exerting the effort to cope. That’s why it only makes sense taking some time to learn a few words or lines in the local language so you can communicate with people who don’t know English or the other languages you use.

Know the local language translations as well as the possible answers for the following:

Greetings (People are more likely to lend you a hand if you show some courtesy.)

  • Hello
  • Hi
  • Good Morning
  • Good Afternoon
  • Good Evening

Facilitating Communication

  • Yes/No (Be sure to know the local language translations for these important words)
  • Do you speak English?
  • Can you speak slowly?
  • I don’t understand / I didn’t get it.
  • Please repeat.
  • I’m sorry.
  • My name is ______.
  • What’s your name?

Common Expressions when Asking for Help

  • Please help me.
  • I am hurt. (It would also help if you know the local terms for “food poisoning,” “bitten by a venomous animal,” “fractured,” “bleeding” and other common injuries)
  • Please call an ambulance.
  • Please call the police.
  • Fire!
  • Emergency!
  • (stating your location) I am at _____.
  • Please help me contact (your country’s) embassy.
  • Can I borrow your phone? (It may also help if you mention that you are willing to pay for it.)
  • Please help me charge my phone. (Be sure to remember the local word for “charger.”)
  • I lost my ____.


  • What’s the name of this place?
  • Where is the restroom?
  • Where is the bus stop (train station or airport)?
  • Where can I get a taxi?
  • Where is the nearest store (restaurant/diner/bank)?
  • Where is the nearest hospital (pharmacy/clinic)?
  • Where is the police station?
  • (In case you can’t get a mobile network signal) Where can I find a cellular network/mobile signal?
  • How far is ____ from here?
  • How long will the trip take?
  • What time does the bus/train leave?
  • I am going (will go/want to go) to.
  • Know the local words for “left,” “right,” “up,” “down,” “back,” and “turn around.”


  • I want to buy bottled water (batteries/sunscreen/tampons/pantyliner/).
  • How much? (Be familiar with the possible responses)
  • Memorize the local language translation for the numbers 1 to 9.
  • Is there a smaller/larger size for this?
  • Is there a cheaper option?
  • How many can I get for this amount?
  • Can you give me a discount?

Health and Safety

  • Is the tap water safe to drink?
  • Is it safe to swim here?
  • What time do establishments close?
  • Can I go there? (Verifying entry to a place that appears to be private property)

Dining and Accommodation

  • I am allergic to ____. (You need this in case you are trying out an unfamiliar dish.)
  • Make it spicier/less spicy.
  • Check, please.
  • Is the tip included here?
  • Do you accept credit cards?
  • Where can I get toilet paper?
  • My room has cockroaches.
  • My bed/pillow has bed bugs.
  • My room is messy.
  • My ____ is not working.
  • Do you have Wi-Fi internet connection? How can I access your Wi-Fi?

It shouldn’t take much effort to remember the local terms for the sentences or expressions above. If you can’t memorize all of them, you can always prepare a written copy of all the essential translations in your phone or on a piece of paper.

Sometimes, simply using keywords is enough. For example, if you want to ask where the nearest bus stop is, you can just say the local equivalent for the words “bus stop” + “where.” Most locals will likely get what you are trying to say.

2. Communicate in writing.

Sometimes, even people who may know some English fail to understand you because of your accent. It may help writing down what you want to say and have the person (you want to talk with) read it. This is not always going to be helpful but if you think the person fails to understand you because of your thick accent, try writing your question.

3. Make the most of body language.

Body language is virtually universal for people around the world. Pointing at things, in particular, greatly helps in understanding things. You can try drawing things in the air and it can help someone understand what you mean. You can point at certain objects in lieu of or in addition to using words. It’s like playing charades but you are allowed to cheat by using many other things to facilitate understanding.

Be mindful of your body language, though. Avoid pointing at a person. Don’t cross your legs or arms while talking to someone (asking for assistance). These gestures are not viewed favorably in most cultures. They make you look arrogant and self-important. Be careful in repeatedly nodding your head up and down as somebody is talking. This can be offensive in some cultures like in Greece and Bulgaria. As much as possible, project yourself politely without looking weak or naive. Sometimes the look of naivete can get you in trouble.

Photo by Nathan Rogers on Unsplash

4. Bring some useful items to aid in communicating.

There are things that can help you communicate with people even when you don’t have a common language to use. These could be a map or photos (could be photos saved in your phone). You may also use addresses written on paper to make it easier to get the answer you need if you are seeking directions to a specific location.

Of course, you can also use technology. Your can have the Google Translate app or some other translation app on your smartphone and instantaneously translate the spoken words of a person you want to converse with. You may also use an offline translation gadget like Ili, which is very useful in places where it is difficult to connect to the internet. The Google Translate app can also be used offline but you have to make sure that you downloaded the required languages into the app so it can work without internet connection.

Be reminded, however, that translation apps are not always accurate. They are not going to provide precise translations similar to what you can get when you use the service of professional language translators. If you want to talk to someone with whom you don’t have a common language to use, and you need your conversation to be as accurate as possible, you can turn to over the phone interpreters. There are language service providers that provide interpreting services remotely. It would cost you some amount but if you don’t want translation errors, it’s worth spending for.

5. Never be offensive or offensive-sounding.

Mind your manners as you communicate with someone who hardly understands you. For example, when trying to explain what you are trying to say, don’t make it sound like you are talking to a toddler. Don’t repeat words over and over. If the person does not get it, try to write it or point at something that can provide a clue.

Make your voice reasonably louder if the person is showing signs of having difficulties hearing you. However, don’t shout especially into the person’s ear. Again, if verbal communication is difficult, try to do it in writing.

Avoid correcting someone’s pronunciation if you already know what they are trying to say. You may try to clarify the pronunciation of certain words especially if the mispronunciation appears to mean something else.

There may be instances when you encounter someone who does not smell pleasant or has oral odor issues. Try your best not making it obvious that your olfactory senses are suffering. Look for somebody else to talk to if you can’t really bear it.

Moreover, never laugh or grin as someone tries their best to explain things to you. Some locals would try to use English words that sound like cave speak. You might find this amusing and start grinning. Always remember that you are the one needing assistance so be polite and patient.

6. Don’t spend so much time bothering someone.

Lastly, remember to limit the time you try to communicate with a local who does not understand English or your other language languages (unless he or she is the only person you can talk to). If you fail to understand each other in 10 minutes or so, consider looking for somebody else to help you. Don’t waste somebody’s time or your time trying to communicate when nothing seems to work.

With advancements in technology and the efforts of tourism authorities to make their respective countries more tourist-hospitable, it is usually not difficult to be a tourist nowadays. However, language barrier problems can still happen every once in a while. Use the tips mentioned above as you deal with these.