google translate app language barriers

Handling language barriers while traveling

by Michael on February 26, 2017

One question that keeps cropping up in our global travels is, “How do you handle language barriers while traveling?” As full-time global nomads, we can’t become fluent in the language of every country we visit, that’s just impossible. We used to feel bad about this but the reality is that, as people whose native language is English we are fortunate, which can also make us a little lazy if we are not careful.

English is now the international language of the world, used as the common ground for individuals from far-flung locations. We’ve witnessed an Italian communicate with a Vietnamese shopkeeper in English, similar with Germans traveling in Romania. However, we still learn some basic expressions to show we are making an effort. It’s incredible how these attempts, in our admittedly terrible local accent, often break down barriers. They certainly draw a smile.

Helpful phrases include: “yes/no,” “please/thank you,” “where is…,” “how much” “I’m sorry, I don’t speak _______ [fill in the blank of the local language],” and “where is the bathroom?” Although pantomime often works with the last one.

Language barriers chinese menu

But there are times it’s handy to have a pocket translator. For this we use the Google Translate tool that we’ve downloaded to Michael’s iPod Touch. (Someday he may get a phone, but until then . . .) The app works offline on both Android and IOS devices—which is especially useful while traveling, when you might not have local cell or WiFi coverage.

The tool is simple: type an English word into the built-in dictionary and get the word in the local language. The reverse is also true. You can also play the word to hear the correct pronunciation, or speak a phrase for translation.

But the feature that blows us away is the photo scanning tool. Hold your phone up to a sign in a foreign language and it will translate it into English, or whatever language you choose.

Translating a sign in Oslo with the Google Translate tool. Photo by Larissa Milne

Here’s the tool in action at a construction site in Oslo. Notice how the app translates the word and even keeps it in the same font. This comes in handy while translating storefront signs, menus, bus and train info, and even road signs.

Using the Google Translate tool—and learning a few core words in the local language—makes communication while traveling a mostly seamless experience.

When we know we’ll be in a particular country long-term, and don’t want to rely on the kindness of strangers speaking English, we use the  _____ in 10 Minutes a Day series of books. We like their feature where you put stickers all over the house to learn what certain objects are. Twenty years after using this book to brush up on Italian, we still know the Italian words for everyday objects.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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