Words of Wisdom to an On-The-Fence Traveler?

Traveling to a country where you do not speak the language can range from exciting to somewhat uncomfortable to downright scary. When one of the Pearls of Travel Wisdom newsletter readers emailed me about her desire to go to Paris, but shared her fear of not speaking French, I put a few tips together for her in this post: A Reader Asks: I’d Love to Go to France But I Don’t Speak French – Help!.

As a BoardingArea reader, it is likely that you’re a frequent traveler and have done international travel to a place where English is not the primary language. Do you share the same concerns as our reader Sue? Or does a foreign language not even phase you?

Please share your words of wisdom on how best to navigate around a city without speaking the language. I’m sure Sue and many other readers feeling leery about such travel will appreciate it!



  1. Doesn’t faze me. I can usually make myself understood. What does faze me is signage. That really throws me for a loop in a place like Japan or a Slavic country. Quite baffling and frustrating.

  2. I was trying to order a crepe at a stand near the Eiffel Tower and say “Bon jour un crepe si vu plais” to the guy in my america-french accent. The guy looked at me strangely and said “American?” I said “yes” and he said “what do you want?”. Moral of the story, most French people speak English, but they might pretend not to. Just know a few polite French words and you will find that most people will understand you, but be prepared for some awkward moments.

  3. We always try to learn at least the main courtesy phrases when traveling to countries where English is not the primary language. We have discovered that courtesy – attempting to show our respect for the host country’s language – most often yields a volunteer who speaks perfect English.

    Our biggest challenge was our visits to China. We decided to take a course in Mandarin for Tourists. The course was offered on the campus of a nearby University by the Confucius Institute. The Confucius Institute is a joint venture between the Chinese government and major universities around the world. It is primarily aimed at helping business travelers understand the language and customs of modern day China.

    Our two-month class certainly did not make us fluent but it did give us basic knowledge and a real comfort level during our travels.

  4. Yes, P T, I’m heading to Japan next week for the first time and I know I’ll be uncomfortable with taking their train system. But I keep reminding myself that “I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable” and somehow I’ll figure things out.

  5. Funny.. Reminds me of National Lampoon’s European Vacation. You’re right that a few polite words go a long way! And get used to laughing at the awkward moments. I once asked a waiter at a restaurant for a glass. He looked at me in shock. I learned later that I had asked him for a kiss (beso) and not a glass (vaso).

  6. Wow, that’s wonderful that you could take a two-month class! My husband is trying to learn Cantonese without any formal classes, and he’s learned enough to at least give the locals the idea that he knows their language … good come bargaining time!

  7. Carol, I hope there is a way your husband can find someone to teach him the hand signals commonly used for bargaining in the street markets in China. I never got it down but my wife did and she certainly used it to her/our advantage. That was part of the class we took. Not certain where he can get that quickly. If he uses local guides perhaps they could help him.

  8. There’s a huge difference between traveling to any of the major tourist destinations where either they will know English, or be used to people who don’t know their language, and traveling to places which don’t really get tourists. It’s the latter where concern is needed. In the former, one would have to be unusually timid to be concerned.

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