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Traveling in so many foreign countries, I’ve had to hone my communication skills down to a tee. It’s something that every long-term traveler has done, and something that perhaps we only rarely recognize as a genuine skill.

directions in chinese
Directions in Chinese

However when I meet my friends on the road, or new travelers starting out, I remember it took me years to be able to communicate with people who speak little or no English (or when I speak little or none of their language). I try to impart onto my new buddies a few skills that  you should keep in mind when trying to find out some information from a local, but you’re struggling with a language barrier. So here are 5 definitive tricks, in order of importance,   to communicating better when a language barrier is an issue:


1)   Grade your Language

This means that you should you use simple verbs, nouns and adjectives. Don’t say “when’s the bus due”, ask “when does the bus come”. For a non-native English speaker, ‘due’ will not be in their vocabulary, but ‘come’ almost definitely will. Suddenly they understand.


Always try to simplify your words, but don’t patronize. Maintain correct grammar throughout guys, there’s nothing worse than hearing people talk to foreigners like little kids. Please, please, please don’t resort to saying “I come what time”, “what time should I come” is perfectly fine, people want to learn English and you speaking like a retard is not helping!


2)   NEVER Ask Leading Questions

The most common mistake by people with little experience of dealing with non-native English speakers. The world is a nice place, full of nice people. People want to respond positively, they want to help so when you ask a question like “Is the bus station straight down here and then left”, if they don’t understand they’re gonna just say yes. You’ll think you’ve got an answer and off you go, but in reality the person didn’t understand you.


Frame an open ended question like, “where is the bus station”, if they tell you “straight and then left”, perfect – they understood and now you have a genuine answer.. If they don’t understand, you’ll know it, and you’ll have no answer (a vast improvement on the wrong answer!).


3)   Get Stuff Written Down

Normally in your hostel, the staff will speak at least a little bit of English, don’t be afraid to use that. You know in the next few days you’re gonna need to tell a bus/train/taxi driver that you want to go to the airport for example, so get the English speaker to write “I’d like to go to the airport please”, bham – problem solved. Don’t be scared to get a host of things written down, it’s so much easier from then on in.


4)   Ask Appropriate People

When you need to ask someone a question, think about who you’re asking. Generally speaking, you want to ask someone under 30 years old, preferably people who look like they are university students. Failing that, hit up 5 star hotels, pharmacies and banks – those places almost always have English speakers inside.


5)   Don’t waste your time

So you’re grading your language, answering open-ended questions and you’ve chosen an appropriate person to ask but they’re looking at you blankly, don’t waste their time or your own. They clearly don’t have a clue what your jabbering on about so thank them and move on.


If you stick to these 5 rules, you’re gonna spend a lot less time on random wild goose chases, I hope this helps, I know it certainly helps me. Happy travels!



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0 thoughts on “5 Ways to Communicate Better With Locals When You Travel

  1. Excellent tips – definitely lots of people haven’t thought about that. I was already teaching ESL when I started travelling a lot so these things had become more obvious but I still see it now with the way Australians phrase things to my (German) in-laws – really don’t think about how difficult they are making a simple question/sentence!

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