Travelling when you don't know the local language - why there's no such thing as a language barrier

"I would love to come to Australia one day," the waiter confessed, smiling wistfully. "I want to go surfing there! But my English is not good enough."

I laughed, like he must be joking. "Your English is great. You would be fine in Australia."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "It's not good enough."

And then he wandered off and got back to the business of waiting tables. Case closed.

This was in Tokyo not so long ago. Our waiter had clocked that we were from Australia, my partner and I, and had started talking to us about his love of motorbike riding and surfing, about how he dreamed of one day doing them both in Australia. But he'd probably never go, he said, because of the language barrier.

This is patently crazy. Not purely because he'd just conducted this entire conversation with us in English. And not just because my partner and I were clear and present examples of the fact you can travel with an appalling command of the local language and still get by. But, even more importantly, because the language barrier doesn't really exist.

It's not a barrier at all. Let's call it a bump.

See also: $230 to enter: The most expensive countries for Australians to enter

For people who are new to travel, I can understand how this could be one of the most intimidating aspects of the whole experience. How do you communicate with people who don't speak your language? How do you get by? How do you order food and ride public transport and book accommodation and just move about the world when you suddenly can't say anything to anyone that would make any sense?


That's a frightening feeling. It seems like such a huge challenge. It really does sound like it would be a barrier to successful travel. But it doesn't take long to figure out that it's absolutely not.

Take Japan as an example, one of the more extreme. There's not much English spoken in Japan. There's still plenty of signage around that's only in the local language, an unrecognisable alphabet that's impossible for non-speakers to puzzle out. Some restaurant menus are only in Japanese. The people you need to explain to you the various cultural quirks that make up everyday life in this country don't speak your language.

So what do you do? You get by. You point at things and wave your arms and rely on the kindness of strangers to figure out what you mean. You drag waiters outside the restaurant and point at the plastic food you want to order. You bumble around and smile and make mistakes and let people excuse them.

In a more practical sense, and in a modern sense, you also pull your phone out of your pocket and you utilise its magic: you talk into it and allow it to translate your words; you take photos of signs and menus and allow it to spit out the English equivalents.

You also find, pretty swiftly, that just a few words of the local language will take you far, that you can achieve many of life's necessities with just a handful of phrases.

See also: The top 10 countries for Asian food

And this is one of the more extreme examples. Try travelling through Europe, where you think French people are going to be rude to you and Spanish people won't be able to understand you and that Greece will be all, well, Greek. But it's not even close.

You can puzzle out most signs by relating them to English. You easily get your point across with a few local words and some waving of the hands. You've seen most words on the menus a million times back in Australia anyway. This stuff is simple.

Sure, you're not going to get into any deep conversations that reveal the intricacies of the local psyche. But you are going to find a decent restaurant and order a beer. You are going to catch that train and book that hotel (both of which are easy to do online pretty much anywhere in the world in your own language).

And then of course there's the trump card for Australians: English. We just happen to speak everyone's second tongue. We already possess knowledge of the language that anything else will be translated into. We get to be incredibly lazy, because everyone else has come to the party for us. Pretty much anywhere you go in the entire world, you'll find someone around who can speak some your language.

So don't concern yourself with this "barrier". Don't avoid places where they may not speak your tongue. Communication in a foreign land is one of travel's most enjoyable and rewarding challenges, and the secret – which unfortunately my waiter in Tokyo didn't quite understand – is just to give it a go.

Where have you found the language barrier to be the biggest challenge? How did you get through it? Which countries speak the best English?



See also: Twenty things that will surprise first-time visitors to Japan

See also: Eight countries where most visitors miss the best attraction

LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the podcast with Ben Groundwater

To subscribe to the podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.