Do You Need To Learn The Language Before You Go To A Foreign Country?

by joeheg

After my co-worker learned about my travel hobby/obsession/blog, he asked me where I’ve traveled. I rattled off a few places, such as Japan and Austria, and he replied that he’d always wanted to travel overseas but never did because he didn’t speak the language. He asked if it’s possible to visit these places if you are unilingual. I replied with a resounding, “Yes!”

Don’t let the fact that you don’t know the language keep you from visiting a country. Of course, I’m not suggesting being a proud idiot and going in expecting everyone in a different nation to speak your language, either. Understand there will be difficulties in communication, which will become greater the further you explore from the normal tourist areas. These are some of the quaint things you remember about traveling. It’s a good idea to try and learn a few phrases before you go. Things like good morning, good evening, excuse me, please, thank you and the ever-important I’m sorry.

Here are a few examples of places we’ve traveled to without knowing the language and the memories we have.

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France (specifically Paris), was the first non-English speaking country I ever visited. I knew a few words and phrases (and picked up some more along the way like Pain au chocolat and eau de glace en carafe).  Getting around Paris on the Metro was easy and signs at the tourist attractions were usually in French and English. We did have some interesting interactions with the locals when we tried to hail a cab and the driver misunderstood our confusion as an attempt to haggle on the fare. We didn’t complain, as he dropped the price by half.  We did get scammed by the restaurant next to our hotel who brought us wine with dinner (which we didn’t order and tried to tell them so) but we got charged for it anyway. We chalked that one up to the price to experience the local culture.



Visiting Japan is much different than visiting France because, on top of their own language, they also have their own alphabet (or I guess more accurately three alphabets). I don’t care how long you look at a sign trying to figure out if the character of, “the man next to the gate with the spikes that has two or three lines coming out of it,” matches your directions, you’re not going to get to where you want to go.

Luckily, most of the signs in Japan are in Japanese and English. This is true even more so than when we first visited in 2005, which was even more so than Sharon’s first visit with a friend in 1993.


While they do teach English in Japanese schools, many people do not feel comfortable speaking it. However, if you spend enough time looking at a sign like the one above, looking very confused, we found that eventually a very nice Japanese person will come up and ask if you need help. What amazed us was that they often were not satisfied with just giving you directions, they wanted to make sure you got to your destination and would walk you all the way to the correct train and made sure you got on.



This was the one trip where we spent time planning our time in Salzburg but I did absolutely NOTHING about trying to learn the language. I’ll admit that before the trip I actually Googled “What language do they speak in Austria?”

I was amazed at the number of people in Salzburg who were fluent English speakers and could go back and forth with ease. Every single restaurant we ate at and tourist attraction we visited had signs in multiple languages. The wonderful concierge/desk agents at the Goldener Hirsch were the most amazing, as they spoke to us in English while helping someone on the phone in German. What’s particularly interesting is that I can remember the two places where the people didn’t speak English – the laundry where we managed to mime that we needed our clothes cleaned and she showed us the price and pointed at a clock for the time to return, and one of our taxi drivers who was given specific directions from the hotel staff.

Final Thoughts

While visiting a foreign country can be intimidating, it’s also exciting. Experiencing different cultures is one of the things that make travel so rewarding. As someone who speaks English as a first language, I realize I am spoiled that a large number of people who live on this planet learn my language in addition to their own. I’ve heard that’s because English-speaking countries have large economic influence around the world and people learn the language of whoever has the money.

My one takeaway is to not let your lack of knowing a language keep you from visiting a country. If you are visiting a major city, you most likely will have no problem getting from the airport to your hotel and to most of the tourist attractions. In the age of technology, you are only seconds away from a translation.

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derek July 6, 2020 - 2:15 am

If I have enough advanced notice/planning, I sometimes try to learn the local language. Three exceptions are Israel, India, and Japan, where I found it too difficult to learn. I also found there aren’t many Tamil speakers in the U.S., more Hindi and Punjabi. Another was Italy, where I didn’t have enough time to learn and also found out that most people don’t speak English.

One benefit of this kind of planning is I now know some French without taking any classes in school.

Christian July 6, 2020 - 9:19 am

Good post. It brings to mind an old joke: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.

Peter Rettig July 6, 2020 - 10:15 pm

We’ve always found that knowing at least basic greetings and polite phrases will make your travels so much more fun: You’ll get some smiles and your efforts will be appreciated! That’s why we started Lingo-Late. It’s impossible for most people to learn more than a few languages, but 10-20 words and phrases can be learned by everybody who tries!

Tom May 27, 2021 - 8:54 am

The Salzburg example made me laugh. My father is from a small town on the other side of the border/mountains from Salzburg in Germany called Bad Reichenhall. I grew up visiting most summers and naturally I learned to speak German (the local dialect which is vastly different than textbook German). Well my wife who was born and raised in Berlin (the north) came with me to visit Bad Reichenhall and Salzburg. I had to actually translate for her several times because the dialect that she speaks is completely different and many people have a hard time understanding German speakers in the far south of Germany and Austria. So basically, you can still have a language barrier in your own country! Crazy to think about.

joeheg May 28, 2021 - 12:29 am

I’m sure the same can be said for many areas of the USA. I learned that when I moved from NJ to FL.

Serene April 4, 2022 - 9:11 am

Japanese doesn’t have an alphabet. They have their scripts which are syllabaries but not alphabets.

warren trout April 5, 2022 - 7:45 pm

Know hello, thank you, excuse me, how, sorry, and keep google translate handy.

You can’t learn every language of every country you visit.


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