Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What to Do When No One Speaks English????????

Nine Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Here is a helpful list, written by Tim Campbell, about how to navigate when no one seems to speak English.  I added a few of my tips at the end.

You've always gotten by with your high school French or Spanish overseas, but what if you're in a place so remote no one speaks anything but the local language and you haven't taken the time to learn more than "hello" and "thank you"?

English is a common second language in many countries, particularly those that see lots of tourists or international businesspeople. But go off the beaten track, and English speakers aren't as easy to find. In the jungles of Ecuador you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who spoke anything other than Spanish. What if you're in rural China or Russia, or even a major city in Asia like Tokyo that has very few signs in English?

Below are nine tips that can help.

1. Don't panic.

Logic and composure are your best friends. You might fret if it's getting late and you can't find an ATM or your hotel. Don't worry; eventually someone will help. Stay positive.

2. Write it down.

Before you leave for the day, ask the front desk or concierge to write down the name of your hotel in the local language, or get a business card with the hotel's details on it. That way if you get lost, anyone can point you in the right direction, and a taxi (your safest bet at night) will return you to the front door in a heartbeat.

3. Get an app.

If you'll be using your smartphone abroad, download a translation app. Our favorite is Google Translate, which covers approximately 70 languages. You can have a local speak into the phone or even take a picture of written text, and the app will translate it into English for you. The app will work offline if there's no 4G or Wi-Fi available. It's free for iPhone and Android.

4. Buy a phrasebook.

Remember that your smartphone may not work everywhere in the world -- and if your battery dies, you may need a backup plan. If you're headed to a place where power is limited and English speakers are hard to find, it's worth investing in a phrasebook. Even if you can't pronounce the words, you can show a local the page of the book with the phrase you're trying to convey. Many guidebooks also have a list of common words if you don't want to carry a separate phrasebook.

5. Go to a hotel.

Wherever you are, look for the nearest lodging, preferably a luxury or business hotel (which will be most accustomed to international guests). Hotels almost always have a person on staff that can speak English or will find someone for you who can. In the worst case, you can rest in the lobby and gather your thoughts.

6. Find a tourist office.

As with hotels, tourist offices are used to interacting with international visitors and will likely have multilingual people on staff.

7. Look for familiar franchises. Editor at Large Dori Saltzman offers an unexpected tip: "Go to McDonald's or another chain that you recognize from home. Because these places attract Americans, the staff often will know a little English -- and even if they don't, some of the diners might."

8. Look for young people. Senior Editor Sarah Schlichter recommends reaching out to younger locals: "I've found that people in their 20s tend to be more likely to remember the English they studied in school than older folks who haven't practiced their second language in a few decades."

9. Draw a picture or sign it out.

Hand gestures, sketches or even just pointing to a map can all get your point across if words fail. Be careful, though; seemingly innocent hand gestures in your own culture could prove offensive elsewhere in the world. We recommend reading up on taboos and hand gestures before your trip at

The main thing to remember is that people worldwide are generally helpful. Remember your charades and try to act out what you need. If nothing else, it will give the locals a good laugh, and when they are laughing they will be more inclined to help.

Here are my additions for those overseas on business:

Avoid Using American Slang, American Idioms, Acronyms, American Sports Trivia, and American Humor


Practice universal English language.  Avoid the use of any terms or idioms, jargon, buzzwords, military or sports analogies, colloquialisms, acronyms, or euphemisms that might be confusing to someone who is not from your region of the world.  Also, shy away from sarcasm or innuendo.  You will probably be the only one who understands your meaning.  Using these confusing terms only create barriers to effective communication



Sports metaphors and analogies are very commonly used in the US.  You will completely lose your audience if you pepper your language with these idioms in other countries. 


Think locally. Try to find a few topics that are important in the local popular culture. Remember, most people in the world have little or no interest in the World Series or the Super Bowl. (Think about what it means for us to call it the World Series-- when only we are involved)   remember, what we call “soccer” is football everywhere else. And it's the most popular sport on the planet.  Next year, watch the World Cup!


Humor is the last aspect of culture to translate across cultures.  In fact, humor is so culture specific that some humor is only understood by certain individuals in subcultures, even inside the US.  For example, unless you are a biker, you probably would not understand biker humor.  Often when Americans attempt to use humor, especially when they tell jokes from the podium, foreigners in the audience will laugh along yet have no clue of the meeting of the message.  Typically, they are instructed to laugh when everyone else laughs-- in order to save face.


Avoid using humor that is uniquely American.  Steer clear from making fun of other groups-especially as it relates to characteristics they have no control over such as ethnicity, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  Take the lead from your host when engaging in humor.


Finally, learn the metric system.