Hello? Hola? Bonjour? Hints for Surviving in Non-English Speaking Countries

Hello? Hola? Bonjour? Hints for Surviving in Non-English Speaking Countries


Navigating a new place is hard enough without the extra stress of a foreign language. Here are some tips to help you along the way when visiting a non-English speaking country.

Talk to cab drivers

This is some of the best travel advice I’ve received, and now I’m passing it on to you. Cab drivers know their city, and they’re often pretty obsessed with it. More often than not, I’ve found that many of them can speak some English, and are as excited to learn about our culture as we are their’s. Sure, some won’t want to chat, but you’ll be able to learn a lot from the ones who do. If you’re trying to actually learn their language, they’re excellent teachers, as well.

Don’t assume people can speak English

Easy enough to remember, similarly it’s easy enough to forget. With preconceived notions about Americans already in place, locals will be disinclined to help you when you start speed-talking at them in English.

Get a guidebook; learn some phrases

Even if your Spanish or French or German isn’t great, it’s usually appreciated when you at least try to speak the language of the country you’re in. Learn how to say some things and laugh with your converser when you butcher the words.

European street signs


Speak with confidence

Just as you should walk like you know where you’re going, you should speak like you know what you’re saying. So what if you’re completely wrong? As long as you don’t inadvertently say something offensive, you’re golden. An incorrect sentence will be incorrect whether you’re shy about it or confident, so you might as well be confident.

Notice signs

Read street signs. Dissect words. Think about it. I spent so long wandering around a French train station because I didn’t know the word for “bathroom.” It’s “toilettes.” I probably could have figured that out had I paid more attention to my surroundings.

Remember landmarks

Observation is extremely important when traveling. It’s even more important when you don’t speak the language, because you don’t have the “ask a stranger” option to fall back on if you get lost. Notice what’s around you and what you passed to get to your current location.

Remain calm

You’re probably going to get lost and get yelled at in a foreign language and have people look at you like you’re the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen. That’s okay. You’re not the first person these things have happened to and you won’t be the last. Inhale, exhale, and get on with your day.

Do you have any tips for surviving in non-English speaking countries?

feature photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via photopin cc



  1. Great tips! We lived in a small town in Japan, and there was NO English. The one tip I would add: be prepared to use body language. Our non-verbal communication really improved when our limited vocabulary ran out!
    Body language isn’t really something you can ‘practice’ in advance, but don’t be afraid to talk with your hands if that’s the only way to communicate.

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