Essential Tips To Overcome Language Barriers While Volunteering Abroad


Traveling abroad is a creative mix of thrill, adventure, learning, and challenges. It is, in fact, the travel challenges that creates the thrill and adventure and helps you to learn a lot of new things. However, at times there are a few travel challenges that can get a bit on your nerves.  One such challenge is the language barrier.

Now, although, volunteering abroad is a special kind of travel expedition and mostly covers all basic travel challenges, including the language barrier, the latter still takes the time to blend in.

Volunteers get to interact personally with the locals and understand their basic vocabulary. The local coordinator, appointed by the placement agency, provides all the necessary information during an orientation session, and throughout the program.


However, the issue of communication gap still persists and needs to be taken care of. So, in order to overcome the language barrier while volunteering abroad, here are a few approaches a volunteer can take effective measures;


Be very clear in what you speak (Be slow!)

Right! Never rush into things; not even speaking. Always remember that you may be fluent and comfortable in a language, but that may not be the common language in the area you have arrived to volunteer at.

Form each and every letter and/or word of the sentence very slowly and clearly. This helps a lot in making the message clearer. Also, never ever try and shout out loud if you think that’d help; ‘coz it will most certainly NOT!

Stick to the easiest words you can manage – you don’t need to string them together to form sentences. Forget grammar.


Try out the language apps

There are a number of online dictionaries, language handbooks, and English to other language conversion apps available today. Make smart use of your smartphone and download any of these apps to help you frame your sentence in a better way.

This is one of the commonest ways to get a hang of the local language. Volunteers work for 4-5 hours a day over the weekdays and get the entire evening time to themselves.

Utilize this time to look for some phrases or particular words you heard during the day, and want to understand what it meant. These apps can really come handy for volunteer working for teaching volunteer program. In a way that, they can always use local jargons to connect with the kids and make it easy for them to understand what you’re teaching, rather than using slangs.


What’s Google there for?

Why not!? When you can access Google search engine for the tiniest of the information you need help with, then why not for cross-border languages. Volunteering abroad mostly places candidates in underdeveloped or developing countries, and that too in the remote areas. Google search the local languages spoken in the area you are heading to volunteer abroad.

Also, you can always look out for the meaning of a particular word or phrase, which has been called out to you; just in case you thought it was not in good gesture. Try not to react to it, though. Simply show that you’ve understood what they said and move on.


Be respectful to other languages

Getting yourself understood by the locals is a two-way deal, not one-way. Locals are sometimes suspicious of foreign travelers, but if you show the right level of respect, admiration, and appreciation for their language and customs, they will warm up to you.


Show the admiration towards their language and that you are determined to learn how to speak the same. They’ll be more than happy to help ease things out for you.


Learn some basic phrases and words

One of the best things and biggest advantages of volunteering abroad is that you get a detailed orientation about your program and the volunteer destination.

These orientation sessions are conducted by the locally appointed coordinators of the placement agency to get you the most authentic information about your volunteer destination. Some of the vital information that such orientation sessions provide are;

  • Cultural orientation
  • Food habits
  • Gestures
  • Do’s and Don’ts
  • Things to do during free time
  • Common languages
  • How to’s


And more of such essential information are provided during these sessions; making them very important to be a part of.

You can get to learn some highly valuable words and phrases from the commonly used language at your destination. Alternatively, you can also learn the same from your local peers and, with time, while interacting with the natives at the project.


Express yourself through body gestures

It is true that words may fall short, but emotions will always be the pioneer in expressing yourself.

Using hand and body gestures to convey your message is a great way to break through from any kind of language barrier. For the matter of fact, it is these facial emotions and gestures that will help you to a great extent while working on your project.

For example, a 2-year-old kid won’t understand any language whatsoever while you are volunteering for a childcare project. It’s the gestures and emotions that you use is what will tell them whether you’re being friendly or not.

Emotions are universal. Happy, sad, and angry: all of these are understood in different languages without having to use the language. The same applies to a lot of other instances.

However, always make sure your gestures are respectful. Try and find out if there is a gesture that might come across as offensive to a particular community, or the place you are volunteering at. Exercise your judgment and use gestures wisely.


Ask if they speak English

Make your life less complicated and simply ask. There is no harm in approaching first and asking if the other person or a group of people, you are addressing to, know English or not.

It is not for granted that any place that you visit while volunteering abroad has a non-English speaking crowd.

So, let say you visited a restaurant for dining out. You can expect the staff that works there (at least the mid-level officials) to understand English. The same goes for several other places. Hence, always a good idea to ask first. Trust your instincts as well!

A notepad can really help at times

The loyal notepad! Who would have thought this could be so useful when traveling. Any phrases that you think are useful that you may use regularly should be jotted down in preparation to be whipped out at any given moment.

Alternatively, you can always, quickly, draw a sketch of what you might be looking for or asking for in particular; such as the way to the washroom, a tool-kit, etc. You don’t have to be Picasso for that!

Carrying a handy notepad helps a lot in remembering stuff as well. So much so that, you may not even need to refer it at some point.


Be calm and ask again if not understood at the first time

Getting conscious, making assumptions, or losing temper, these three can thwart your efforts to make a connect or bond. You must always remember that the other person speaks a different language and it may happen that they do not get you at the first time.

As a responsible traveler, you should be understanding enough to keep your calm and repeat what you have to say.

Don’t assume that you understood what you’ve been told. Ask for clarification politely and make sure the information is correct. If you’re self-conscious, you might just nod shyly and walk off, even if you haven’t really understood anything.

Getting self-conscious about the entire situation is not a solution. You are going to make mistakes, you are going to say things incorrectly, and you are going to have to brush up on your charades skills for getting your body language across.


The key is to just get over it and accept that these things are going to happen.

At the end, it’s you who have to lay out the method of bonding with the local people. These were some of the most favorable ways you can overcome the language barriers while volunteering abroad. After all, traveling is all about exploring and expanding your knowledge; and volunteer traveling is a more responsible approach to it.

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