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How to Communicate in a Foreign Country

Whether you are embarking on a last minute vacation that didn’t allow you to learn the basics of a new language, or you’re visiting so many different countries that it would be impossible to learn all the vocab necessary to communicate along the way, there are still a few quick tricks you can learn to communicate in a foreign country.

The Basic Phrases

Thankfully for English speakers, many English words and brands are recognized globally, so go ahead and try to use the English version and see if the other person’s ears perk up at all. Whether you’re taking a weekend tour of Amsterdam, or backpacking through Europe for 3 months, begin learning these phrases immediately:

•    “Sorry, my {insert language} is awful.”
•    “Where is the:” bathroom, train, bus, hotel.
•    Slang – it will make your trip more memorable, and it’s the type of thing you won’t find in a book, so learn it from the locals while you can. When you return home your buddies will be impressed by your newfound worldliness.
•    Learn a native song – True, this technique may not get you very far in a conversation, but at least you’ll feel right at home in the local bar.

Don’t worry about grammar or perfect pronunciation. In fact, the less you think and the more you speak the better off you will generally communicate. In place of grammar, learn as many nouns as possible and rely on hand gestures instead of verbs.

Universal Sign Language

The daily universal travel necessities revolve around eating, transportation, and money. Master the following pantomime gestures and you’ll be able to communicate without saying a word. Remember, in order to be understood, use exaggerated facial expressions.

•    You’re hungry: Motion to your open mouth while patting your stomach.
•    You want to know how much something costs: Rub your thumb and fingers together.
•    You’re lost: Fingers pointed in opposite directions combined with a confused, lost look, and a slight shoulder shrug.
•    Trying to find the train station: Hold your arm up, elbow bent at a 90 degree angle, and say “Choooo chooo!”
•    Wondering what time it is: Tap your wrist. 
•    You don’t have a clue what the other person is saying: Hold your palms up, raise your eyebrows, and shrug your shoulders.
•    You order something and it’s not what you wanted/expected: Shake your head no emphatically and wave your hands. Once they get the point, follow with an apologetic head shake.

Beware These Gestures:

The following gestures, while innocent in the U.S., can be confusing or downright rude in many countries.

•    The A-Ok sign: Your thumb and forefinger form an “O” and the other three fingers point upward – is considered vulgar and offensive in many parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Russia.
•    Thumbs up: While a gesture of good will in the West, many Asian, African, and Middle Easter countries view it similarly to giving the middle finger.
•    Beckoning with your forefinger: Many Asian and African countries consider this rude, and sometimes it can be viewed as a symbol of death.

Other Useful Tools

•    A pad of paper and a pen: For when all else fails and you must resort to drawing stick figures.
•    Persistence: You may have to try your luck on a few people before you find one willing enough to work with you. Also, don’t let your self-esteem be dashed by the locals who shake their heads and look at you like you’re an idiot.
•    Phrase book: It’s time consuming to rely on all the time, but it doesn’t hurt to have one ready just in case.

If you have booked a vacation and are worried about communication barriers, get over any fear you may have of looking like a fool (because you most likely will) and dive into a new language head first. Another option is to visit and find a travel buddy who already speaks the language.