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How to Survive When You Don’t Know the Language

by Casey Cuthbert
study abroad summer

Last Updated on June 26, 2015 by

Surviving in a foreign country can be enough of a challenge. However, surviving in a foreign country where you don’t know the language is a completely different story. This, coincidentally, happened to me this past weekend when I went to the beautiful city of Naples, Italy, just myself and my sister, who also happens to know no Italian.

Though a bit nerve-racking, the language barrier became an adventure of its own. As we checked in to our authentic hotel late at night after a delayed flight, we realized the person manning the front desk knew as much English as we knew Italian.

For the most part, Google Translate was the proverbial knight in shining armor for the entire 36 hours I was in the boot of Europe. But you can’t get by on Google alone. IMG_0889I came up with a list of tips and tricks of how to survive in a place where you don’t know the language:

  1. Download a translator app

I downloaded an app simply called Italian that was loaded with common phrases and words that I might need to know when talking to a local. These are super helpful because Wi-Fi isn’t even needed to load the phrases. It’s no Rosetta Stone, but it’s exactly what’s needed for a quick weekend trip.

  1. Use your surroundings

This can prove helpful when traveling from your cozy home to your exotic weekend destination. After landing in Italy, I knew that I would need a taxi but they weren’t exactly advertised in bright neon letters. Instead, I just followed other people, locals (you can tell by eavesdropping on their accent) who didn’t have someone waiting to pick them up, and they led me straight to the taxi area.

  1. IMG_0861Utilize travel sites

On one day alone in Italy, I managed to spend 11 hours on a guided tour of Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast. They were two separate tours (led by an English speaking local) that I found on Expedia. Though it wasn’t a free tour, I was able to see and learn so much more in just one day than I would have been able to on my own.

  1. Be open to new experiences

So you may not have known what your waiter just said to you, but hey, if they recommended a dish they are known for, who are you to think that you know a better item on the menu? Keeping an open mind is key for new experiences. Besides, isn’t that what studying abroad is all about?

  1. Keep a positive attitude

Even if you are a tad stressed out about being in a place where you don’t understand the language, it’s not the end of the world, I promise! Rational thoughts and a bit of patience can go a long way; just take a deep breath and you’ll be able to think a bit more clearly.


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