Navigating Cities In A Language You Don’t Understand

What is the scariest part of traveling? For a lot people, the language barrier can be intimidating and discourage people from seeing the world. Even bilingual people may find this unnerving. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Though it can be intimidating at first, with some practice, navigating a city in a language (or maybe even a whole new alphabet!) can become second nature.

  1. Learn signs and universal symbols.

Every country on earth has a series of symbols and signs that they use to convey information to residents and visitors efficiently. Lucky for non-speakers, these signs tend to be straightforward. Often times, pictures represent the direction, place, or landmark.

navigating cities in a language you don't understand Rakbo signs

  1. Learn the basics.

One of the best things you can do before you visit a new country is learn the basics of their language. Learn important words that you will definitely need to know, like “airport”, “taxi”, “hotel”, and DEFINITELY learn the word for “restroom”. Also, you should learn greetings and words and phrases that are considered polite. While many, many people around the world speak English, its best to assume that the people you contact do not because it can be considered extremely rude. More often than not, they will respect your efforts to speak their language, even if you butcher it.

  1. Learning one language helps.

This was the most surprising thing to me. During college, I took two years of French. Knowing one romance language made it so much easier to understand not only the Spanish and Italian speaking people I met, but also the Arabic-speaking people I met. Even if you do not know all the languages, knowing one can help to get a general idea of most other languages. With these languages, a lot of the words are similar, if not just the same.

  1. Context clues.

Navigating a country often goes beyond finding the hottest club or must-see tourist destination. Keep in mind that no matter where you go, you are interacting with other humans, and navigating these interactions are equally as important. Even when you don’t speak the same language, relying on context clues can get you pretty far. Remember where you are, whether you are shopping, sight-seeing, or at a restaurant. Normally, the conversations you have will revolve around these places, which is the first step to having a meaningful conversation and fruitful conversation.

  1. Body language.

Along with context clues, body language can help you navigate a conversation and country a great deal. It can be helpful if you find yourself at a site where certain behavior or reverence may be expected, or even if the way you are acting or speaking to someone is appropriate. Body language can give major clues on how you should behave in any particular country or setting.


Navigating yourself in a country where you don’t know the language. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Absolutely not!  With a some effort and a little intuition (and practice), doing so can become second nature. Although, I must say, some of the best memories I have from traveling included getting lost.

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Allyson is a junior at the University of Akron in Ohio, USA. She is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in media production with a minor in anthropology. Allyson kicked off her dream of traveling around the world with Semester at Sea during the Fall 2016 Voyage. She visited 11 countries throughout Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Some of her life goals include road-tripping the entire length of the Pan-American Highway and living on a kibbutz in Israel. Her dream career is to travel around the world making documentaries. To her, the best parts of traveling are learning new things from other people, and constantly hunting for the best cup of coffee in the entire world.

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