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Riding the buses » Travel tips » Don’t know the language? No problem!

Don’t know the language? No problem!

Don't know the language?

Language should never be a barrier to independent travel although it is often cited as one. People who backpack around the world obviously don’t know the language of all the countries they’re travelling through. While there’ll be times when no one around you speaks your language, don’t panic.


  • Ask for information using one or two words that locals might recognize such as “Train?” or “Hotel Santa Fe?”
  • Carry a paper and pen and write down the name of the place where you want to go or the price you are prepared to pay; point to it on the paper instead of saying it
  • Carry a small calculator for bargaining
  • Use hand and face gestures; you’ll only feel like an idiot the first time or so

Think about how you’ll ask for something in a restaurant using gestures, such as a cup of coffee with milk and sugar; you’ll soon learn the translation of the things you want most! If a restaurant has no menu, remember that chicken and rice are served just about anywhere in the world so look those words up in your pocket dictionary (or draw a chicken on your paper). Locals are also innovative. In a remote village in Turkey we were invited into the kitchen to choose the dish we wanted from pots simmering over the stove.

If you’re concerned about taking the bus then go to the station well in advance and have a look around. Destinations are usually posted on a board, along with the class of travel, departure and arrival times, fare and departure gate. Write the information about your trip on a piece of paper and go to the teller to purchase the ticket. You will probably be asked to select a seat, perhaps from a computer screen (yes, there are computers in some of the most remote places) or from a picture. Ticket agents regularly deal with tourists who don’t speak the language so relax.

It’s empowering and also a courtesy to know a few words of the local language. Try to get the local translation and pronunciation for these English words (not always so easy, I know):

  • Good morning; Good afternoon; Good evening; Goodbye
  • Yes; No
  • I’m sorry; Please; Thanks
  • Mr.; Mrs.; Miss
  • How are you?; Very well, Thank you
  • How much does it cost?; Coffee with milk; The bill, please
  • Where is the toilet?

It’s also helpful to know your numbers from one to twenty.

Choose your language dictionary carefully; too many of them include so-called cute phrases that no one would use. Look for one that contains very basic, useful words and phrases with a guide for pronouncing them. Don’t worry about grammar.

Many of us are jealous of Europeans who speak three, four, five languages but most of us can’t do that. Remember that travellers help each other out so don’t hesitate to ask someone who appears to be ‘in the know’ for assistance. It’s done all the time all over the world.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2010

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