How to communicate when you don’t know the language – 7 tips

How to communicate when you don’t know the language – 7 tips

“Just sound confident and everyone will assume you’re right.”

When I was at school I remember being asked to read something out loud in front of everyone in the morning assembly. The piece I had to read contained some difficult words and names, and I remember feeling very apprehensive about it.

A teacher gave me that genius piece of advice: “just sound confident”.

It worked – at least for that occasion. When it comes to speaking and learning a new language though – and to communicate when you don’t know the language – it’s not always quite so easy!

It’s not always easy to communicate when you don’t know the language

Not only are we often in a new or strange environment and with new people when we’re trying to speak or understand a new language, but we also don’t want to look like a complete idiot.

For me, learning a language is not only a useful thing to do for practical reasons, but it’s also a wonderful way to start to recognise things about ourselves in the wider world. Here’s a silly example for starters…

On my first trip to India (a long time ago) I was still pretty naïve as a traveller, and it was the first time I’d been anywhere that used a different alphabet.

Before arriving in India I’d read up a lot on the places I was going to visit, but I lacked the foresight to realise that street names, especially in the smaller places, would not only be written in a different language but also in a different alphabet – so I couldn’t read them at all! It meant I couldn’t navigate my way like I’d expected.

I mean it’s obvious really, isn’t it? Doh.

Language opens our eyes – as well as our ears

In the same way that learning a new language can open our eyes to different ways of life, not speaking other languages might actually narrow how we see the world. Understanding how another language works can give us a wonderful insight into how native speakers think – and how the language blends with that particular ‘culture’.

In her fascinating 14-minute TED Talk, “How language shapes the way we think” Lera Boroditsky highlights some interesting facets of language – and it’s definitely worth a watch.

She talks about how, in using a specific language (and whether we realise it or not), we’re transmitting knowledge, ideas and insights that reflect the very history, culture and ‘politics’ of that language; we’re using words that have been shaped by all that.

She also mentions a specific Aboriginal community in Pormpuraaw in the north east of Australia, whose language reveals a completely different – and fascinating – way of seeing the world.

Everyone makes mistakes and bloopers!

If you’re like me, you’ll also have made some real bloopers in your time when learning a new language. Words that look obvious can mean something completely different – and getting the pronunciation of a word just a tiny bit wrong means we can find ourselves saying something we really didn’t mean to say at all.

The slightest nuance in a vowel can change meaning, and yet it can be so hard to get the muscles of our mouth to produce those new sounds.

It might leave you wondering if it’s at all possible to communicate when you don’t know the language. And of course it’s the same for people who are learning our own mother tongue.

So, given all that, what chance to we have to communicate effectively in any place we might find ourselves in? Surely it must be fraught with problems and misunderstandings?

Well, yes, it is! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a go. And if we can laugh and share a joke about it at the same time, it can actually be a way to build relationships and form bonds with people in the community we’re trying to get to know.

How to communicate when you don’t know the language

Here are 7 quick tips to help you get by in a new language, even if you don’t speak it:

1. On a piece of card print out some key phrases that you know you’ll personally need and carry it with you. A friend of mine did this when visiting Laos. She always has to be very careful with her diet for health reasons, and needed to be able to show the card to any waiter or waitress in a café or restaurant. It worked really well.

2. Learn some phrases off by heart – practise, practise, practise. Even if you only learn a few things, the people you’re speaking to will really appreciate it. (Google Translate and other language apps will tell you how to pronounce things.)

3. If you really need to resort to your own language, ask the person you’re speaking to if they mind – but ask them in the their language, not yours. (Add it to your card.)

4. If you’re somewhere that uses a different alphabet to your own, then it can be tricky to figure things out. If it’s your own alphabet, though, it’s easier. Many languages in a geographic ‘cluster’ (such as in the different countries in Europe), have similar roots and so you can often work things out. For example, it’s fairly easy to work out that café, cafè, caffè, kaffe, Kaffee, cafea and koffie all mean the same thing: coffee.

5. At the same time, be alert for ‘false friends’ – those words that look so recognisable but that mean something else altogether. They can really trip you up. For example, ‘car’ in French means ‘because’, and ‘un car’ is ‘a coach’. ‘Gift’ in German means ‘poison’ – and ‘Mist’ is something else altogether! ‘Experimentado’ in Spanish means ‘experienced’, and ‘sensible’ in French and Spanish means ‘sensitive’. If you announce at the end of a meal in France that your are ‘pleine’ (literally: full), people will start buying baby clothes for your happy new arrival. Similarly, if you make a mistake speaking Spanish and feel embarrassed, don’t say that you’re ’embarazada’, or you’ll also be telling people you’re pregnant. And if someone in Spain asks you if you’re ‘constipado’, don’t be offended; they’re asking if you have a cold.

6. Make mistakes – and laugh about it! It’s the best way to learn – even if your faltering words are met with blank looks at times. Use mime and and gestures – but do make sure you know beforehand what gestures might be offensive wherever you are.

7. Ask someone sitting next to you on a bus to help you pronounce something. It could be one of the things you have on your card of phrases. Most people are very happy to help and may also feel flattered that you asked.

What experiences have you had learning or speaking a new language?

Have you made some hilarious mistakes?

How has learning a language helped you understand the way native speakers think?

Do you have some interesting tips on how to communicate when you don’t know the language? Let us know in the comments.

9 ways travel changes your mind


  1. Tina Haben 2 years ago

    Love this article Angela. While living in Italy and learning the language some of my experiences were hilarious: at the beginning I had a few stock phrases which I had learnt by ear which caused me to come a cropper. (there’s an idiom that is very hard to understand unless you are a native speaker!)
    Someone in the street asked me if I knew the time and I replied that didn’t know (non lo so) I got a strange look and the person moved on quickly. Later I discovered that I hadn’t replied ‘I don’t know’ but had replied ‘my grandmother knows’ (Nonna sa)

    In restaurants I was proud of myself telling the waiters that I don’t eat meat (non mangio carne) until one day a waiter told me that they don’t serve dog!!!! I was saying ‘cane’ instead of ‘carne’. such a small sound and yet so important!

    keep up the good work

    T x

    • Author
      Angela Sherman 2 years ago

      Those are brilliant examples, Tina! Thanks so much for sharing. The one about your ‘grandmother’ had me in stitches, It’s so important to give it a go though, isn’t it – and risk making some mistakes – rather than not trying at all. The results can be so funny.

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