Pointing in a general direction 15 times only to retire to a nervous smile that, with only seconds, transforms to a dumb smile is practically an international traveler’s rite of passage. Unless you’re a hermit whilst traveling or possess superhuman intelligence that allows you to learn nearly every language, you’ll likely have the humbling experience of not being able to communicate in the native tongue of a country you’re traveling to. Luckily, there are ways to limit your number of dumb smiles flashed on trips.

Matt Westenburg

Courteous Folks

Unless I accidentally turn this blog post into an earth shattering piece of genius and it gets syndicated, you’re probably reading this in English: meaning, you hopefully speak a little bit of it. Lucky you. There are 18 countries where the majority speak English, and over 78 countries where a significant portion of the population speaks the language.

Also, lucky for you, I have a hunch there are courteous folks everywhere to help you out if you don’t know the language. This can ease your travelling worries, but don’t be so eager that you just start shouting “Hello, can you please tell me…?” to locals every time you need help. Most places usually appreciate at least an effort in using the country’s native language. Broken sentences usually elicit appreciation or pity. Either way, locals will be more inclined to help if you try to meet them in the middle.

Matt Westenburg

Iconspeak Tee Shirt

An icon is worth a thousand words, or at least a thousand of your indecipherable babble words when trying to speak a language you do not know. That is why a shirt that has taxi cabs, mechanics, wi-fi, a dinner plate, a coffee mug and many others is a solid purchase. Think about it: spend hundreds of dollars and several hours on a class to get basic skills in one language or be able to get by anywhere in the world with only a 20 dollar tee shirt and an abstinence from laundry? The answer is clear.

Google Translate

Even though it catches some flack for not picking up on grammar nuances, Google Translate is some impressive software. If not the key, it can at least provide the broken sentence lock pick that will open up the door to communicating effectively. That is, as long as you use it correctly: preferably, as a last resort. Most people don’t take kindly to a screen shoved just shy of their nose with half of the screen looking like gibberish, so if someone is kind enough to give you enough time to navigate around euphemisms and type a phrase into your online phrasebook, be courteous about it. Also, download the language pack you’ll be using for offline use and save key phrases. In case of emergency, “Where is the bathroom?” should be number one.