Not knowing the language can take you places, too

All the “what if” misunderstandings make great stories.

Zuzana Pápayová
Jul 24 · 4 min read

What’s the worst thing that could happen while traveling if you don’t know the local language? Three travelers who crossed more than 20 countries and 5 continents told me about their “worst-case” experiences. To summarize their words:

Wanna make people happy? Get out into the world and make yourself ridiculous!

Google Translate and English can be tricky

On the nomad journey — travel and work in harmony

“Do you ask about bad situations due to a lack of the local language? Hm… No, I can’t remember anything, not even embarrassment,” says Hanka from Na Nomádské Stezce (On the nomad journey) about language faux pas on her travels. She only recalls sweet little misunderstandings that still make her laugh now.

“In a small village in the Azores, we couldn’t decrypt what an upset food seller wanted from us. He was so desperate, he finally resorted to Google Translate. “No cards, only cash.” We had only cards and no cash. No money meant no food that evening.”

Europe, too, can be tricky,” she recalls. In Rome, Italy, nobody would help her find the train station because they didn’t understand English. “Finally, all I said was “train! chuff-chuff!” and a nearby man waved his hands and fortunately, I got the directions right!”

Vietnam and Chile were full of such chaotic situations,” Eliška from Krok ven, the Czech traveler and freelancer, recalls. In Vietnam, many people just seemed impatient with travelers. However, smartphones and Google Translate usually helped. “Sometimes, the translator showed only random words, but that was still better than nothing.”

Read the situation and if you are wrong, laugh about it

“Sometimes, all you can do is just guess,” says Ejmy, a freelance traveler who helps expats in Czechia, in her blog GoodCzech. “The worst that can happen is an awkward moment. It usually happens when you order food or want to pay. You never know if the shop assistant asks for a loyalty card, wants to give you a bag or says something else. So in this case, read the room and guess.”

Google Translate and basic phrases can get you far in a messy Vietnam

Similarly, Eliška and her boyfriend had booked Airbnb on an avocado farm in Chile. “We showed up at their door, but somehow they didn’t expect anyone to come.” Eliška realized that there had to be a mistake in the booking system. “The family didn’ t speak any English and our Spanish was also useless. Their daughter tried to help, then some neighbors joined the helping crew… and in just a second there was a lively circle of locals around us.”

Eliška not only got a room, but also fresh avocados for every breakfast. How?

All three travelers agree that you don’ t have to pack heavy dictionaries and over-analytical worries for your journey. All you need is your common sense, body language, mobile apps and the desire to just say more.

Less is more: tips for your journey

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

“I don’t like to learn and use complex phrases of the local language if I don’t speak the language well enough. I tend to stick to simple words and sentences,” Hanka suggests to other travelers. “Local people otherwise may think I am fluent and their tempo gets way too fast and the vocabulary too difficult.”

Learning only the most useful words in a new country can help.

The funny thing is, you never know what someone thinks is essential. An expat living in Poland wrote on our Facebook post that the most useful expression he’d recently learned was Czuje się jak młody bóg (I feel like a young god). Another one in Czechia said, for him, it was Nemám nic, ale mám dost (I have nothing, but it is enough.)

These stories and the Facebook community have inspired us to create the Word lists “Travel” and “At the airport”, which (really) include the most useful words not only for Polish, English, German and Czech, but also for French, Spanish, Slovak, and Vietnamese. Search for it in the app.

Travelers will also find a list of practical tips in Tips for traveling when you don’t speak the language.

Wanna get more tips and tricks on learning languages, vocabulary apps, and a sneak-peek of the Vocabulary Miner app? Let’s #saymore to you — join for news.

Vocabulary Miner

We keep learning vocabulary simple. You will say more with every word. Join Vocabulary Miner — free Flashcard app.

Zuzana Pápayová

Written by

Marketing Explorer for Vocabulary Miner. Currently searching for a way in Marketing labyrinths.

Vocabulary Miner

We keep learning vocabulary simple. You will say more with every word. Join Vocabulary Miner — free Flashcard app.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade