Language barriers do not have to stop you from becoming a nomad.
Instead, before you hit the road, understand what your options are and how you’ll overcome language challenges you may encounter. Most of the nomads I’ve met have been either native English speakers or fluent in English as a second language. This makes sense because, whether we like it or not, English has become the ‘universal’ language.
Because of this, there’s a tendency for us English speakers to rely solely on the language and think we can get by anywhere without knowing the local language of our next destination. But even though English is informally ‘universal’, you may encounter difficulties in many countries of the world, especially if you wander off the beaten path, outside of big, commercial cities. You’ll quickly realize most people do not speak English and you shouldn’t expect them to.
For your own safety, and also for a more streamlined nomadic experience, you need to have a plan for how you’ll navigate in countries where you’re not fluent in the local language.
You have several options, language-wise, but I’m sharing two types of solutions, those that seem more challenging and a solution that feels easier.
Learn the Basics
The basics of a language are easier to learn than you may think.
Becoming fluent in a language takes time and dedication. It isn’t a quick process. But as a nomad, you aren’t aiming for fluency (unless that’s a longer-term goal). You’ll mostly only need the basics while you’re in the country you’re going to.
When I first became a nomad, I was only fluent in English. I had taken Spanish in High School but struggled even years later to reach my current level where I feel confident in a Spanish-speaking country. I even gave up on learning languages at one point. I thought it just wasn’t for me. But I had to reassess and change my mindset when I faced the truth that my nomad experiences would be better if I put even minimal effort into learning the basics of countries I plan to stay, say, for longer than a month.
I’m now co-writing a book about language learning with a polyglot who is fluent in more than six languages. Together we’ve interviewed more than 20 polyglots and spent almost a year researching language learning.
From what we know from personal experience and what we’ve learned preparing the book, the number one takeaway we want to share with readers – and you-–is that you can learn the basics of any language. And you can do so quickly.
The best approach to learn the basics is to focus first on common vocabulary and basic phrases you’ll likely need for everyday use:
In addition to words, here are some key phrases for nomads to learn:
Thank you very much
Where is the….?
How do I find…?
My name is….
How are you?
Can you help me….?
Do you speak….?
I don’t speak…..
Is there someone here who speaks….?
Sorry, I don’t understand
I do not know…
Not only is it easier than you think, it just may save your life. Knowing the basics can help you deal with difficult situations and can help you feel safer.
A few years ago, I heard a polyglot being interviewed on a podcast (I wish I could remember his name). He shared a story about a traveling incident with his wife in Mexico. They were in a car accident and she was hurt. He left her with the car and went to get help. But when he found people, he didn’t know basic Spanish and couldn’t communicate that they were in an accident and his wife needed help. I always remember that story.
In a case like that, knowing basic vocabulary could save time – and maybe someone’s life. For example, knowing the words car, wife, accident, please help, please call, emergency etc. would be useful. None of those are advanced words.
Set a plan to spend just 30 minutes a day learning vocabulary, at the very least, for 60 days before you reach your nomad destination.
When you reach your nomad location, even if you haven’t yet learned the language basics, there are tools that can help you.
Here’s what I use on the regular, even if I know the basics of a language:
*Google Translate & DeepL (both are translation apps)
*Google Lens (this one is particularly useful for activities like grocery shopping. You can turn on your camera and it will scan an item and translate it. It’s not always perfect, and I’ve found it didn’t work in a few countries (for example Georgia), but it has been helpful
*Dictionaries and phrasebooks. We have become so digital but some of us still like analog tools, phrasebooks, and dictionaries. You can carry those tools with you and use them as needed.
*Pen and paper. Write key phrases on paper and carry them around with you. This sounds so simplistic, but it works. And typically local people find it endearing.
Befriend Local People
When you form genuine connections with local people, you’ll have opportunities to practice their language. And, in turn, you can help them with your native language if they want to learn.
Local people can also help you when electronic translation isn’t cutting it (Google translate is not enough sometimes).
Also, I’ve had times when a landlord left me an audio message and I needed help understanding what they were saying so I’ve asked a local friend.
Go Where You Don’t Need Another Language
I’ve left the most controversial solution to last. I call this the lazy solution, but I don’t mean it in a derogatory way. Maybe you’re at a time in your life where you just don’t have the capacity to take on a language. I was there once.
Language snobs would probably have berated me, but I don’t live for them. I live for me. During those times, I went to countries where it is easy to get by without the local language (for example, most parts of Germany, Lisbon, Portugal, etc. Places where they’re used to catering to many tourists and so speak basic English).
The key is to prepare yourself and have an idea about how you will approach language barriers before you choose a country to go to. This may take a little time, but certainly isn’t impossible to do and will make your overall experience in the country better.