Language Tips For Travel

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As Americans, we may love to travel to foreign nations and immerse ourselves in their culture, but we’re terrible when it comes to knowing the language ahead of time. That may be partly our fault, but let’s face it: A lot of places around the world speak English (over 1.2 billion people have at least some English knowledge) – and that just makes our lives easier.

But sometimes you’ll journey to a land where English is not going to help – and you’re going to need to make yourself understood. How? Start out by arming yourself with some basic phrases like “I’m sorry,” “please” and “thank you” at the very least. Then, once you’ve got those down pat you may want to go beyond basic courtesies – particularly if there’s something you need to buy, find or get to. So how do you do it?

No sweat! Here are three terrific ways to break the language barrier, both high and low tech:


How about simply wearing your translator? Iconspeak is slightly less expensive alternative) puts the means of communication within reach of your pointer finger. Florian Nast, Stefan Streit and Georg Horn are the creators of the Iconspeak T-shirt (and accompanying hat and other casual wear) which come emblazoned with a number of quick reference icons to help you get what, or where you need.

“We tried to put together a real ‘essential set’ of icons,” says Horn. “For example, icons that you can’t easily express through your hands and body language – try to show ‘Wi-Fi signal’ with your hands.”

Trip Icons

Speaking of Wi-Fi, Trip Icons is an app you can use without having any signal at all. Downloadable for $.99 at iTunes, Trip Icons provides an array of categories (from “toilet” to “taxi” to, well, “Wi-Fi”) which, when pressed, can provide translated phrases in a number of languages (including Chinese and Portuguese). The app will automatically detect what country you’re in when the buttons are pressed, and provide the appropriate question to help facilitate some basic needs.

And no worry about “speaking” the language poorly; the app’s iTunes store description notes that “All translations have been made and verified by native speakers.” Phew!

It does have a few drawbacks, like a limited ability to make conversation, but for simple asks like where the bathroom is – you can’t go wrong. Additionally, as mentioned earlier – you don’t have to have a signal to make use of it, and it is compatible with the Apple Watch.

Google Translate

Online, Google Translate is a bit of a giggle; it can help with general word translation but phrases and sentences are not its forte. But use it on your phone, and you can just about muddle through in 90 languages – particularly if you have an Android device and download languages you’ll need ahead of time, so you can make it work offline.

You’ll need to download the Translate app first, but then all you’ll have to do is choose the language you need (remember, download first!) and type (or speak) the words you’re hoping to have translated. We don’t doubt there’ll be a few puzzled looks, but when it comes to making yourself understood – it’s clearly better than nothing at all.

But there’s a bonus with Google Translate: Word Lens. Rolled into Google Translate after the company was purchased last year, you can translate signs by simply pointing your camera at the sign you want to translate and the translated words will appear on screen.


Randee Dawn is a contributor for InsureMyTrip and can be found at and @RandeeDawn on Twitter.

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