There’s a huge difference between getting around France or Italy—where there is plenty of English signage and many people speak English —and getting around, say, Morocco or Cambodia. But these tips should serve you well anywhere.
- Learn 10 basic words.
You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish if you know how to say “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Yes,” “No,” “Please,” “Goodbye,” “Do you speak English?”, “Where is…?”, “I’m lost,” and “Help.” (I purposefully did not include “rest room” because I’ve found that the word “toilet” is understood just about everywhere.) If you’ve arrived in a country without knowing any of these words, just ask someone at your hotel’s (or any hotel’s) front desk. Even if you learn only “Hello” and “Thank you,” showing you’ve made that effort will earn you considerable goodwill from the locals.
It goes a long way in almost any country (except Russia, where it is not customary to smile at strangers).
- Speak with hand gestures.
Pointing, miming, and playing charades can often get your message across. If you think you’ve mistakenly offended someone, pull out the Namaste gesture: Press your hands together with your fingers pointing upwards and your thumbs close to your chest, and bow your head slightly. That gesture is usually received as a sign of respect and peace.
- Carry a notepad and pen.
When hand gestures don’t get your message across, playing Pictionary often does. You can draw pictures to make yourself understood. The other person can use your notepad to write numbers or draw a map.
- Use a translator app.
There are many to choose from, but the Google Translate app can be a lifesaver: Point the app’s camera at text (a menu, a road sign, a plaque in a museum), and the app automatically translates it. It also lets you have a conversation with someone: Select a pair of languages, talk into the microphone, and the app translates whatever it hears in either language into the other.
- Have a plan for getting from the airport to your hotel.
The moment when you arrive at the airport is often when you’re at your most vulnerable: You’re sleep-deprived and jet lagged, you’ve got luggage weighing you down, and strangers may be walking up to you saying, “Come with me.” If you’re taking a train or bus into town, airports usually have English signage or recognizable icons to follow. If you plan to take a taxi and it’s a country where you will be especially disoriented—say, India or China—consider having a car from your hotel meet you at the airport.
- Ask the right people for directions.
If you’re trying to figure out who on a street to ask for directions, the person most likely to speak English is usually a professionally dressed young person. But also consider walking into any hotel, restaurant, or store and asking an employee there for directions. I walk into hotels and ask concierges for help all the time.
- Carry your hotel’s business card in the local language.
That way you can always find your way back to the hotel by showing the address to a taxi driver or to someone on the street.
- Carry a paper map in the local language.
Often your hotel’s front desk has such maps to give out. Ask a front-desk staffer to circle or highlight the places you’re trying to get to. Many’s the time I’ve stopped someone on the street with a “Hello” (in the local language), pointed to the spot on the map that I’m trying to get to and asked, “Where is?”, and received clear directions that got me there. If you have no map…
- Ask your hotel concierge to write down names and addresses.
Have him or her write, in the local language, the names and addresses of the places on your agenda, so you can show them to a taxi driver or to a local whom you’re asking for directions.
- Use your smartphone camera to record your route.
Especially when you can’t read street signs or numbers, use your smartphone to take pictures—of intersections, buildings, signs, and other things that might serve as landmarks along your path—so you can retrace your steps via the photos. It’s like a modern-day version of breadcrumbs. When you’re taking the subway, snap a photo of the transit system map upon entering, so you can refer to it as often as you need to, especially when changing trains or platforms.
- Find people who want to practice their English on you.
If you’re looking for locals to speak English with, a great place to find them is by exploring a university campus (which is fun in itself). Book shops also tend to be good places to find outgoing wanna-be English speakers.