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Travel Tips: How to Overcome the Language Barrier

A bit rusty on your multilingual skills? Follow these practical travel tips for destinations when you don't speak the language.

If you restricted your movements to the parts of the world where people understand you, you might not get too far. After all, it's hard enough for an American to decipher directions given by a native Glaswegian, let alone negotiate foreign alphabets on a street sign in Asia.

The language gap between Americans and Europeans is well-documented. While the number of Americans who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled in the past three decades, according to a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau Report on languages, it's still only 20%.

Compare that to 2006 European Commission findings that 56% of residents in EU countries speak more than one language and 28% speak two foreign languages, in addition to their mother tongue.

Somehow I've made it through my travels knowing only English and German, the latter not very well. It's not something I'm proud of, and the unopened language tapes piled on my shelves speak to good intentions gone awry.

If you're hitting the road without the time to crack the books, here are a few tricks to circumvent the language barrier:

Learn a few important phrases. Author and tour leader Beth Whitman ( didn't speak Spanish before her solo motorcycle road trip from Seattle to Panama. What she did memorize: canny conversation to get herself through police checkpoints in Mexico and Central America.

"I always told them I was meeting my husband in the next town, where I was taking language lessons," Whitman said. That simple sentence told the authorities that she not only knew the local geography, she had loved ones waiting for her nearby -- even if they were fictional.

Your international needs may not be as dramatic as Whitman's. But knowing how to ask where the bathroom is -- as well as hello, thank you, please, and excuse me -- will be equally useful.

Speak the phrases, even if you feel stupid.

Approaching locals in their own language, no matter how mangled, is always better than assuming they know English. At worst, you'll get a shrug, but at the best, you'll get the help you need, along with a smile and possibly a friend.

Plus if you don't practice, you'll never get better. "The only way you are going to learn is through real interactions," said Michael Schutzler, CEO of Livemocha (, an online language community. "You aren't going to get that through a book."

Technology can help. Apps aimed at overcoming the language barrier come out all the time. Look for language apps that pronounce phrases for you; some even have games to make learning more fun. One on my to-get list: Word Lens, an app that translates signs from Spanish into English from the photos you take on your iPhone.

Adapt to the culture.

Learning a destination's customs can endear you as much to locals as speaking the language. Avoiding common tourist faux pas, such as expecting to eat dinner at 7p.m. in Buenos Aires or asking for milk in your afternoon coffee in Italy, lets people know you are trying to fit in, even if you can't say a word.

Keep a thick skin.

On her tours of Asia, Whitman -- a slender, fit Seattleite -- routinely finds she's larger than the locals, which has led to some interesting comments. "Google 'Fat Tree Trunk,'" she said, of the name she received from ESL students in Vietnam. "There's probably a picture of me. You can't take it personally."

Go anyway. My lack of language skills mean that I must point and nod, giggle and gesture, to get where I need to go. It's not the most fluid way to travel. But I'd rather be lost in translation than sit at home on the sofa.

Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust dishes up travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World. Join her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter. or leave a comment below.