11 Things I Learned From Traveling to Places Where I Don't Speak the Language

Over the course of my short life, I've been fortunate enough to travel to many different places near and far. From spending six months in Istanbul to my many trips to Central Asia (I'm currently on number four), I've left home with a one-way ticket and a loose plan more than once. And more often than not, these trips take me to places where English is not the local language.

As an American, I'm the product of an educational system and society that doesn't prioritize language learning in the same way many other parts of the world do. For example, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 66 percent of all European adults report having some knowledge of more than one language. In comparison, the portion of American adults that report similar knowledge is closer to 20 percent. In China, an estimated 300-400 million students are now learning English, compared to about 200,000 US students currently studying Chinese. And in 2016, more than 80 percent of the adult, working age population with a tertiary level of education (anything beyond high school, including technical school or an associate's degree) of the European Union knew at least one foreign language. You get the picture. Long story short, my language skills are not my strong point, nor are they for millions of other Americans.

While traveling in new places like Turkey and Kazakhstan, I've committed myself to learning the local language as much as I can, which has been a massive challenge in and of itself, but often you just don't have the time. It's also worth saying that language learning takes a very long time, and many years of Russian language instruction has not made me comfortable in Russian speaking societies in any meaningful way. So what have I learned from traveling in places where I did not speak the language? Here's 11 things these experiences have taught me.

  1. Smiles are universal. Simple as that!
  2. At their core, people are kind and good. In my travels, I've met countless people that have stepped up and helped me navigate a tricky situation when they saw I was struggling.
  3. Where there's a will, there's a way. At the end of the day, your language skills are what they are, and we need to deal with the hand we've been dealt. Between hand gestures, sounds, phones translation, etc., you can find a way to communicate what you need.
  4. Being a native English speaker is an immense privilege. English truly is a global language, and people all across the world are eager to learn it. This means people will often want to practice any English they may know with you. It also means that if you're in an extreme jam, there's a good chance that depending on where you are, there will be someone around you that speaks English to some degree and will be able to help you translate.
  5. Learning how to say "thank you" in the native language is important. People love to see visitors in their country making the effort to learn even a little piece of their language. In my opinion, it's the least we can do to thank our hosts in their own language. A simple "thank you" can mean so much.
  6. I have more empathy for people in my home country that speak English as their second language. I was born and raised in New York City, a place where there are hundreds of languages spoken every day. However, there are also plenty of people for whom English is not their first language. If spending a brief period of a time in a place where I can't communicate fluently is as difficult for me as it's proven to be, I can only imagine how difficult and trying it must be for the millions of people in America that are in the process of learning English. These experiences have broadened my world view and made me empathize immensely with those navigating societies they're not native to.
  7. Travel isn't always a cure-all, and being unable to communicate can sometimes make things worse. During times when I've been feeling down during my travels, especially when I'm traveling alone, not being able to communicate with the people and environment around me has made me feel even more isolated. It can feel like there's a barrier between you and everyone else. This isn't always going to happen, but it's something to keep in mind if this is something you're prone to.
  8. You can't always be in control. Not knowing the language can be a great exercise in letting go. You are truly being forced to surrender yourself to the experience. Go with the flow, and see where it takes you!
  9. Translation applications are a lifesaver, and you can even translate images with foreign writing. Not something to rely on by any means, but the power of a phone translator application cannot be understated. I'm partial to Google Translate due to their camera translation feature. You can take a photo of a menu and it will translate it on the spot.
  10. If you do have language skills, traveling is a great opportunity to practice and strengthen them. Immersion is by far the best tool for learning languages, so don't be afraid to try out any knowledge you may have. It can feel intimidating and scary to speak a language that's not your own, but it's been my experience that people are impressed with your efforts, regardless of how "good" it is, so just go for it.
  11. The most magical moments transcend language. Traveling will (hopefully) bring with it special moments that don't need language; a stunning sunset, a perfect bite of street food, meeting a sweet animal friend, train rides through the rolling countryside — the list goes on!