5 Ways to Communicate When You Don’t Speak the Language

It’s a question I get quite often back in the states, “How do you survive when you don’t speak the language?”

Since I’ve been in Taiwan I’ve found it somewhat difficult to communicate with the locals. Of course I expected this going into the country with no Chinese experience and not one Rosetta Stone chapter in my iBooks app. However, I didn’t think it’d be as hard as it was the day I got lost in a small town that NO ONE gets lost in – but that story’s for another blog post.

Every Girl, Everywhere

So, how do I communicate in Taiwan when I don’t speak the language? One thing you can do is utilize your body. Hand gestures and body movements can help you tell a story and act out what you want. For example, I had to go to the bathroom one day before class and everyone in Taiwan knows it’s difficult to find public restrooms. Thankfully I found a nice looking diner and walked inside. They looked at me with joy and showed me a menu, but unfortunately that’s not what I was there for. In Taiwan there are a lot of signs that say “Toilet”, so I went with that word first and sometimes it works. This time it didn’t. Next, I resorted to my little Chinese book that I got at training. I found the word bathroom and the woman looked very puzzled and confused. Hmm.. is this the right word I should be using? Finally, I resorted to plan C, Cherades. In my head I was thinking, “I can’t believe I’m about to do this.” So, I slowly positioned myself into a squatting pose and made the peeing sound. I couldn’t help but have the biggest smile on my face and laugh. Yes. I. Did. Do. This. AND SHE UNDERSTOOD! She got a giggle out of my gesture, but then took me to a toilet where there was a proper toilet and toilet paper.

This is one out of the many times I’ve had to use my body as a prop to help the locals understand.

Another way you can communicate is by pointing. Pointing to foods that I want or to bus stops are a great way to show them exactly what you want. There’s been a few times that I didn’t know exactly which train or bus to take so pointing has saved me with that one.

I would also say another way you can communicate would be by finding a Chinese language booklet and going out of that, but would advise to watch how you pronounce your words. Learning what each symbol stands for and how to pronounce the word can save your ass from saying something really embarrassing. Either way, all books should have Chinese written in it and you can just show the person that.

An obvious way to communicate would be to learn a few key words in Chinese and base your needs off of that. I’ve learned the following words in Chinese and have gotten by easily.

Hello, How are you, Thank you, You’re welcome
Where is the train, bus, bus stop, motorcycle and airplane?
The ____ is here.
Foods like vegetables, meats, fruit and stinky tofu
I don’t speak Chinese
How much and how much money?
I don’t want

Every Girl, Everywhere

The last bit of advice I can give someone who is in Taiwan (or a foreign country) and don’t speak the language is to JUST ASK IN ENGLISH. Believe it or not there are a lot of people who speak English and can help. Even if they’re not very good, you can still talk to them like a baby and use simple, easy words to get your point across.

I hope this helps!


Now I want to hear from you! Have you ever been to a country when you didn’t speak their language? How did YOU communicate? What were some struggles that you had to overcome?



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Kollin Lephart
Kollin is an avid traveler and entrepreneur. When she's not working as a Marketing Consultant, she's strategizing ways to make Every Girl, Everywhere even better. She's passionate about helping people, traveling and living the best life possible.

2 thoughts on “5 Ways to Communicate When You Don’t Speak the Language

  1. Ni hao pengyou. Ni hao ma? Ni xihuan Tiawan ma? haha

    Hey it’s Brooke from global marketing! How is Taiwan so far? Picking up any Mandarin yet? Hope you’re having a blast!

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