Rick Steves' Tips For Traveling To A Destination Where You Don't Speak The Language

Going to a country with a foreign culture can be thrilling — there are exotic foods to taste, curious sights to see, and fresh experiences to try. But on a practical level, it can also mean not knowing the local language. If your native language is English, the Foreign Service Institute estimates that it takes at least 600 hours to learn a language similar to English (such as Spanish or French) and up to 2,200 hours for languages with different alphabets and grammar structures (such as Japanese or Arabic). That means, unless you've studied hard before your trip, you're bound to run into language barriers and lost-in-translation moments.

Rick Steves, an expert on European travel, knows this issue well. On his long-running TV series "Rick Steves' Europe," he visited a range of destinations, from Portugal to Turkey, with a variety of distinct languages. Based on this experience, the globetrotter offers tips on his website for navigating language differences, and the first is perhaps the simplest: Accept that you'll make mistakes. Steves explains that it's better to communicate and butcher the language than to not communicate at all. This may include throwing in a few English words as needed and mispronouncing the other person's language until they understand (and possibly teach you the correct pronunciation for next time). The travel expert also suggests using gestures to convey the meaning that your words can't.

When you're ready to level up your communication, Steves has a couple of additional tips to try.

Keep notes while traveling

Let's say you need to pass along an important message during your trip, such as telling a restaurant waiter that you can't consume dairy or sharing your hotel address with a taxi driver. The last thing you want is to say the wrong word or try a confusing gesture only to be misunderstood in the end. To avoid the trouble, Rick Steves suggests carrying a memo (either on a notepad or your phone) that contains essential vocabulary and phrases. This tip can even come in handy with numbers, such as if you're confused about a restaurant bill or want to haggle prices at an outdoor market. Simply jot down or type up the number to sidestep a costly miscommunication.

Another way to use this tip is by downloading a translation app on your device before your trip. Some apps, such as Google Translate, allow you to translate text or spoken phrases on the go and even save the translations for later, in case you end up in a spot without reliable Wi-Fi.

Go with your gut

Research by Albert Mehrabian found that 93% of communication is nonverbal, and while critics have debunked this statistic, it still makes a valid point: Words are only a fraction of how we express ourselves. Body language, facial expressions, and the sound of our voice are also a key part of communication. Paying attention to these aspects could help you understand someone in your travel destination, even if you don't speak the same mother tongue.

With this in mind, Rick Steves encourages you to make your best guess when faced with a language barrier. He says, "My master key to communication is to treat most problems as multiple-choice questions, make an educated guess at the meaning, and proceed confidently as if I understand," as per his website. Look for nonverbal clues that give away what the other person is saying and consider the context. If a cashier utters a phrase you don't understand after just finishing scanning your items, you can assume they're likely giving you the total, prompting you to pull out your credit card to pay.

Even if it feels uncomfortable pretending to understand, chances are, you probably do. By Steves' estimate, his guesses are correct 80% of the time. The other times, his misunderstanding is either insignificant, or he catches his mistake, helping him to correct it in the future.