Susan Michelle's Compass
Breaking The Language Barrier Abroad
By Susan Michelle
Mar 28, 2009 - 5:26:38 PM

I have a Frenchman staying with me.  That, in and of itself, is not noteworthy.  What is?  He doesn’t speak any English.  And my French is practically useless.  Needless to say, when there’s no one around to interpret for us, communication is next to nonexistent.

I’ve survived the language barrier when abroad a zillion times, but never felt it up close in my own homeland.  My guest reminds me how difficult life can be when in a land whose language is completely foreign.  You might think that, with the Internet and globalization, everyone speaks English nowadays, but they don’t.  New technology has, however, allowed us to chip away at the language barrier a bit, and when combined with some old school tools, communicating with foreigners has never been easier.  

What sort-of tools am I talking about?  Your own brain, for one.  If you’re heading somewhere you don’t even know how to say "hello," try to set aside some time before you depart to learn a few key phrases in that language, such as: “Thank-you,” “Excuse me,” “How much?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Do you speak English?” Vocabulary can be learned quickly from a book or book-on-tape from your local library, a local class or a private tutor from Craigslist.

If time doesn’t allow for such preparation, a pocket phrasebook, such as one from Speedy Language, is a super-quick way to translate words on the go.  Even quicker?  Pictures.  “Kwikpoint” is a laminated “cheat sheet” of key images that can be understood in any language: pictures of a chicken, a gas pump, a police officer, etc.

If you’re going to several countries on one trip, an electronic translator might prove more luggage space-efficient.  Something like the “Lingo Voyager 5” speaks and displays over 400,000 phrases in 20 different languages, but at $250, it’s pricier than an electronic translator from SVAT or Franklin for $30-$50.  Or, better yet?  Download translation software directly to your phone.  LingvoSoft has numerous applications around $50, and the iPhone offers several apps that are free.  No time to shop for a translator?  If your phone still has internet access abroad, try a translating Web site such as Yahoo!’s Babel Fish when on the go instead.

If you’re not a fast typist, your PDA battery tends to die by noon, or you’re heading to a country that doesn’t even use our alphabet, best to also keep a blank notebook and pen on you.  Helpful strangers can then draw you a map, scribble a picture, or leave you with some written words to look up later.

If you find yourself checking into your foreign hotel completely tool-less, please, do just one thing for me: grab a few of the hotel’s business cards.  That way, if you’re out and about, can’t explain a thing and don’t even remember where you’re staying, you can hand the card to a cab driver, and at least make it home in one piece.  If only I’d thought to print cards for my Frenchman!  


About the Author: A former Hollywood producer and now 2nd-generation travel professional, Susan Michelle travels the planet as the “face” of the fashion-forward Compass travel lifestyle brand. Travel questions? Write her at

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