Welcome to the Great Question series. Having heard the same questions over and over, this series will answer those questions from personal experiences and what’s worked for others.

Stop me if you’ve ever asked any of the following:

  • How do you communicate when no one speaks English?
  • How do I order food from a menu with no English on it?
  • How do I tell the pharmacist what’s wrong with me?
  • Help! The train’s about to leave and I can’t communicate my need for a ticket!

As of publication, I’ve lived in non-native-English-speaking countries for close to 11 years. In some countries, English isn’t widely spoken but you can get by with some basics. In others, English is basically unknown and you’ll want to find another way to communicate.

Plan A: use the English (and numbers) available

There may not be much English, but if it’s there, make the best of it.

Wait, numbers? Yep – based on the numbers and the context, you can make an educated guess as to what’s going on. Road signs all follow a fairly standard convention, a bus schedule will feature timetables or ‘minutes until it arrives, and restaurants usually feature the name of a thing with a price for it.

We know that the above is talking about beers thanks to the English column, but even without it, you can recognize the numbers (0.5 and 0.4…). They’re all in a menu, grouped together… If you’ve seen any of the names before that might help as well.

Plan B: use what you know of the local language

Remember what you might have learned from your guidebook, your academic studies, or simply remember that words in other languages can be similar to your own.

Further, a lot of locals like hearing the local language from tourists / nomads, even if it’s far from fluent.

Plan C: use Google Translate

I list this as plan C because it’s slower, but it removes the chances of putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, or having your pronunciation being the stumbling block that prevents understanding. The written word (or words on a screen) let them read in their own speed, and I’ve often heard someone speaking it as they read it, get that light bulb moment, and then respond in some way.

It’s worth noting that some (but not all) language pairs work with the Camera mode to provide a more-or-less instant but far from perfect translation). This is great for getting a basic sense of a sign, a lot of text on a menu, or the like. It doesn’t seem to matter how much text is present, but the closer you are to it, the easier it’ll be to read.

Three pro-tips with Google Translate:

  • Distill your request to the single, most important element. Feed the translator a single word or phrase – the noun or verb you’re trying to do / get / accomplish. The more complex the sentence, the more likely you are to get a puzzled look.
  • Download the offline translation file ahead of time. This isn’t available in all language pairs, but it’s always good to look.
  • On most phones, turning the device 90 degrees enables a full-screen ‘show the translation’ mode.

Plan D: hand gestures, pantomimes, and body language

As you might expect, this is a more last-resort type of option when the other options aren’t possible or working for some reason. Sometime it’s faster or easier, though, so feel free to skip here when the thing you’re trying to communicate is easier to do than say. Hand gestures can go a long way – pointing to something on a menu, pantomiming a symptom at a pharmacy.