If you’ve ever ventured abroad or even met at least a handful of foreigners visiting your country, you’re probably familiar with an infamous communication issue—the language barrier.

Puzzled facial expressions, repeated hand gestures, frustration at not being understood. We’ve all experienced the difficulty of not being able to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak our language.

What if there were ways to deal with this wall so that we can improve our understanding and connections wherever we go in the world?

This post will show you how to overcome language barriers so that you can better enjoy interactions with whoever you meet.

Communication is an issue of attitude

This is a controversial opinion but not being able to communicate with someone is usually an issue of attitude not language.

Don’t worry I haven’t lost the plot. Of course if someone doesn’t speak your language, you’re only going to get so far in mutual understanding.

But very rarely can you not communicate with someone entirely due to the lack of a shared language alone.

If you make enough of an effort on your side of the two-way street of communication, you’ll find you get somewhere down the road no matter how hopeless it initially seems.

If you’re a native English speaker, don’t strut around the globe believing you’re entitled to speak English wherever you go. Locals aren’t entitled to speak English to you anymore than you’re entitled to speak their language. It is their country after all.

There’s a perception that everybody in the world should speak English—a language chauvinism. 

Empathise with those who don’t—there are genuinely lifestyles where someone living outside of the English-speaking world doesn’t need to know English and the trade off of effort vs results of learning it from scratch as an adult wouldn’t be worthwhile.

For example, when I visited Mexico, I was surprised to see that outside of the main tourist areas the English level across the country wasn’t particularly great. My assumption was that English would be pretty good across a huge swath of the country due to Mexico neighbouring America and the tourism and business with the US they handle.

Yet as Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country and Spanish is one of the most widely used languages in the world (2nd in number of native speakers and above English which is 3rd), it can prosper in business, tourism and culture without reliance on catering to an English-speaking market as much as other nations have to.

As I wrote in ‘The Secret Benefit Of Learning Languages’:

“If you’re a native English speaker like me, it’s presumptive to assume that the people from another country should have a certain level of English because other nations have managed to attain it. If you’re visiting another country, you shouldn’t lament a lack of English ability among the locals there as you’re in their country and so will have to adapt to their way of life and not the other way around.

We forget that so many people’s lifestyles haven’t compelled them to learn English and that their language classes in school may have been as grade-oriented and perfunctory as our own.”

The difference between miscommunication and misunderstanding

The word ‘communication’ comes from the Latin communicare which means ‘to share’ stressing the importance of an exchange in the dynamic of interacting with others.

Miscommunication is due to the sender. The onus of the delivery of the message is on who sends it. That person has to ensure they’ve done what they can to transmit the information in the best way possible.

Misunderstanding is due to the receiver not being able to decode or decipher what is being said.

You can’t always control the receiver’s ability to understand you nor their raw ability in your language. But you can control your side of the equation by showing up as best a communicator as you can. The answer to what you should do when you or the other person don’t understand each other is to adapt—mitigate the chance of miscommunication from occurring.

So how do you improve your side of the communication street? We’ll look at that now.

How To Overcome Language Barriers

Tips on how to overcome language barriers

Since this article is written in English, it’ll refer to overcoming language barriers in English but the advice applies to any language you or your interlocutors are using where you’re looking to surmount miscommunication and misunderstanding between you.

When you’re communicating using English, you have to be aware of the way you’re speaking it to people who don’t have it as a first language. We can get complacent assuming everyone speaks it fine, particularly in native English-speaking countries like the UK where expats and tourists all seem to speak it fluently.

When travelling or relocating abroad, we then proceed to speak English the same way as we would to these people, yet the differences in ability levels can be enormous depending on where we go.

Not everyone speaks our languages well, if at all. If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you understand the mental process that goes on in someone who’s listening to a language that’s not their own. Our brains need extra time to process and translate what’s being said.

Here’s how to improve the chances that you’ll be understood.

Slow down

In everyday life you might not think about it but the speed at which we speak is formed and attuned to other people around us who are, guess what, also native speakers.

This means the majority of us speak at a reasonably fast speaking speed. Why wouldn’t we? A faster speaking speed among natives results in quicker communication and transmission of information which has benefits for the entire society.

Yet this ‘gain’ in speed of transmission is offset by a loss in understanding and quality of communication when you’re not talking to fluent speakers of your language.

When abroad or talking to a non-native speaker, you can develop the instinct to slow your voice down.

This is the single biggest thing you can do to improve understanding when speaking to somebody. You’ll be surprised how many times you’ll become more understandable to someone who struggles with your language just from doing this.

Speak clearly

When we’re speaking casually such as among friends or family, we tend to slur our words together.

Years of repeated habits in doing so can result in a natural speaking voice that isn’t quite as clear as it otherwise would have been.

Luckily, we never lose the instant ability to speak clearer no matter how casual our speech as been. Clearer speech is always available at will.

When speaking to people whose ability in your language is low, enunciate. Take time to stress the parts of the words you’re saying. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s verbally.

Slowing down helps with enunciation. When you speak slower, you tend to utter each word clearer by default with less slurring between words.


Along with simplification in the manner and delivery in which you speak, you can simplify the content of what you say through rephrasing.

Use simple words.

When speaking to someone who lacks good ability in your language, refrain from complex words when a simpler version will do.

Don’t say “accommodation” when the specific name for your lodging i.e. “hotel” or “hostel” will do. Don’t say “currency” when you could say “money” or the name of the local banknote instead.

Write words down

Sometimes non-natives know words in your language in written form but not spoken form, there are certain words they’ve read but never heard.

For instance, there are learners out there that have only seen words like ‘jewelry’ or ‘genre’ spelled out in writing and don’t know how they’re pronounced. Similarly, ‘Wednesday’ or ‘February’ might pose a problem for certain non-natives who expect to hear them differently.

If you encounter a problem with someone you’re speaking to understanding specific words, write the word down and see if it makes a difference.

Thanks to the beauty of the pocket computers we carry around called smartphones, you can use your phone for this without having to lug around a pen and paper.

Speaking of those ‘pocket computers’, they also come with a more obvious benefit to communication.

Digital translation

With access to the internet on the go comes access to digital translation tools. These are useful as last resort methods when a person fundamentally doesn’t understand what you’re saying.

The leader in the market is Google Translate. Years of investment and honing of Google’s translation tool has made it a reliable interpreter in most languages you need. With some of the more complex languages, it’s far from perfect but it’ll get the job done in terms of making you understood.

With Google Translate, you can even speak into the app on your phone and it will emit a translation of what you’ve said. It doesn’t just act as a last resort method, some people have had entire meaningful interactions only using it on their phones.

How To Overcome Language Barriers

Consider different dialects

Related to the act of rephrasing, one thing you might not consider when conversing abroad with non-natives is whether there are words in a different dialect of English you could use that the other person would understand.

For example if you speak British English like me, you can consider American English words in situations where someone doesn’t understand the vocabulary you’re using. The person might know the word for a casual type of tennis shoe as ‘sneakers’ and not ‘trainers’ for instance.

If you’re an American English speaker, you can try the reverse if you’re met with a blank look using American vocabulary. A famous example is asking where the ‘toilet’ is rather than the ‘bathroom’ or ‘restroom’.

This will be more prevalent in countries that have a history with your nation. With the above examples, much of the world adopts British English in its foreign language schooling system while other parts use American English. Someone from Hong Kong will almost certainly have been educated in British English whereas someone from Venezuela will have likely been taught American English.

Learn some of the local lingo

The reality is despite the useful methods we employ when thinking about how to overcome language barriers, there’s no magical shortcut to improving your communication skills with locals than learning some of their language.

Even a few simple phrases pre-trip can go a long way to endearing yourself to the locals. You separate yourself from the mass of other tourists and expats who never make an effort to converse with the natives in their own tongue.

Along with standard greetings and go-to phrases, two of the most useful sentences you can learn in any language are:

“Please repeat that”


“Please speak slowly”.

There are also ways of leveraging the immersion experience you get being surrounded by the language in a country itself to supercharge your language learning.

The key with implementing these tips is that not only will it help you overcome the language barrier with someone by making it easier for the other person to understand you, it will put their mind at ease.

A lot of people are embarrassed (often wrongly so) by their ability in your language and experience tension when they have to use it. If you demonstrate empathy, understand and meet them halfway using the tips and mindsets above, they will warm up to you.

How To Overcome Language Barriers Speaking


Most of us are all too familiar with the frustration of trying to communicate with someone when there’s a language barrier in the way. Some even wrongly give up trying to communicate.

But communication is first a problem with attitude, not of language. If you make an effort, you can always get somewhere with anybody.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding aren’t quite one and the same. The former is due to the sender of a message. The latter is due to the receiver not correctly decoding what has been sent. Both parties should adapt to improve the two-way street that is communication.

There are several tips we can employ to improve our chances of being understood abroad and surpass the language barrier when we come across it.

Slow your speech down and speak clearly to enhance the way you deliver your sentences.

Use simple words to communicate your message and if necessary write difficult ones down on your phone as they may be understood in written rather than spoken form.

Consider using a different dialect such as British over American English and vice versa if needed and use digital translation on your phone as a last resort.

Finally, never forget the power of learning some of the local language—it can go a long way to endearing yourself to the locals.

Like this article? Subscribe to Abroad Lifestyle for free for more tips and strategies on lifestyle design overseas to prepare you for the ever globalised world we live in.