The Language Barrier: 8 Great Stories of Language Troubles!

I recently watched a movie where the female protagonist went on a date at a fancy restaurant in Paris. She didn’t know a single French word, so she ordered by pointing at items in the menu. Of course she had no ideas what they were and was very bewildered when the waiter brought her a plate of cooked snails.

That got me thinking about how language effects travel. Since all countries I’ve been to use English as their primary language, I’ve never experienced such a fun and adventurous moment. To get a taste of real life experiences I reached out to some wise and well-travelled individuals. They are bloggers, veteran travellers and awesome story tellers. I asked them:

Have you ever been to a country whose language you didn’t know? Do you have any funny stories from trying to talk to the locals?

And of course they responded.

Johnny Ward

Writer and Traveler at One Step 4Ward

I’m based in Thailand, and the stories about how beautiful Thai women are are all true. When I first came here, being the young buck that I was, I thought it’d be good to learn how to tell girls they were gorgeous in Thai. “Khun suay maak.” Easy.

Time and time again I’d use it, with disproportionate confidence, but to no avail. Why? Aside from my awful game, “suay” pronounced without raising the inflection at the end means “I damn you.” So I was galivanting around nightclubs damning pretty girls left, right and centre. Wonderful.

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Paul Johnson

Editor at A Luxury Travel Blog

Yes, plenty of times!  I do enjoy learning other languages but rarely get beyond learning the basics that just about allow me to get by. I’ve dabbled with many, including studying Greek and Mandarin, but in Greenland I really struggled to even read the words which were incomprehensibly long and invariably with lots of Qs!  We were able to understand each other through basic English combined with various hand gestures.  Sadly, Greenlandic is very much in decline where I stayed (West Greenland) and Qavak (in South Greenland) is already regarded as extinct.

I can’t think of many great anecdotes off hand, but did have a quiet chuckle to myself when I saw a sign outside the gents’ toilets at a mountain café in the Italian Alps a few years ago; there was a sign on the door that read “please leave a clear passage” – I think they were referring to the doorway but I guess you can’t be too sure … it was a toilet after all!

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Roxanne Genier

President and Co-Founder of Luxe In A City

When you have traveled to as many countries as I have (over 60), you can’t help but have a few funny stories related to language barriers. Getting on the wrong bus, ordering something horrific or insulting someone you wanted to praise.

One story that stands out is when I toured Italy with my mother. It was her first “backpacking” trip and I wanted to show her that traveling in a foreign country was as easy as in Canada. So when I booked a train ticket from Rome to Positano, a small coastal village on the Amalfi coast, I was convinced that I was a veteran traveler.

This is until I realized that our train ticket from Napoli to Positano was actually a combination of a ferry and a bus ticket! How could I have missed this in the clerk Italian explanation!

Of course, I realized this 20 minutes before the departure time of the ferry and had to make my mother run 1km to a taxi stand.

When we tried to explain to the taxi driver that we were in a rush to catch the boat, he understood “we are willing to die to catch this ferry.”  In rush hour, he decide to jump the median and drive in the upcoming lane at full speed “Fast and the Furious” style. He ran a few red lights then accelerated up until he did an acrobatic stop two feet away from the boat’s gangway. We jumped on board with less than 15 seconds before departure.

Lesson learned: Be careful what you ask an Italian taxi driver! And yes, give him a good tip.

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Justine Trembicki

Product Manager Work and Travel at Free Packers


My friends and I were travelling in the north of Thailand when we decided to stop for three days in an elephant camp in Chang Mai. Our camp was quite

remote and located near a small village, about a three-hour drive from Chang Mai.

One day after a trek, two of us decided to play with some kids in the village, but on the way back we got lost and we had to ask the villagers for the elephant camp. Of course no one could speak anything but Thai so we decided to mime an elephant … and to what appeared clearly as an elephant to us, we got the answer: “Vietnam?” How can an elephant become Vietnam is still an unsolved mystery, but we finally found our camp with a good laugh!

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Neala Schwartzberg McCarten

Editor at Offbeat Travel

I was in Shanghai, China a few years ago. Not being able to read or write anything in Chinese, I had printed out the name and address of the hotel in Chinese and brought it with me on the plane. I was grateful for this precaution when I discovered that it is folly to expect a taxi driver to understand English.

From that moment on, I always had a card from the hotel to hand the drivers.

One day I witnessed the unfortunate results of someone not having that magic card. A group of us were about to pile into the taxi when we were stopped by a fellow English-only traveler. He had lost his card. His driver had no idea where to take him, and we couldn’t help – we couldn’t tell the driver the name of the hotel since none of us spoke Chinese (which is why we *always* had that magic card). We were about to bring him with us when, with much relief, he located his own hotel card.

Lesson – always take a moment to make sure you have your destination written in the local language!

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Simon Burrell

Editor-in-Chief of Our Man On The Ground – a luxury travel and lifestyle website

Being able to travel is a wonderful thing – you get to see and experience new cultures and it broadens your outlook on life.  However one of the drawbacks if you are not a linguist is trying to converse with taxi drivers in countries where they either speak very little or no English and you do not speak or understand their languages.

I have had my fair share of hairy experiences, like the drive from Tel Aviv Airport to my hotel where the driver was intent in getting there in record time and when I said to the driver I was in no hurry, he drove even faster!

The journey back a day later was not much better. The driver took a phone call and it sounded as if he was having an argument and was quite prepared to throw me out of the car. He then simply said “Bye” to the person on the other end and we continued safely on to the airport.

Then there was my trip from LAX to my hotel in LA; frighteningly, the driver kept falling asleep at the wheel on the highway and I tried talking to him to keep him awake. But I don’t think he spoke any English and ended up giving me back more change than I gave him for the entire fare. So I actually got paid to take the ride. I guess you could call it danger money!

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Craig Martin

Co-founder of Indie Travel Podcast

We were on the train heading east from Bratislava when we decided to hop off and grab lunch in a random town. It was pretty, with large cobbled squares and decorative façades. Opting for a fixed-price lunch overlooking one of the squares we managed to order using the old point-and-smile technique. No problems there.

Nope. The problems started when I tried to order a drink. Now, you wouldn’t think this was hard: in a restaurant, food has arrived, don’t have a drink, next logical step… Drink! Right?

I don’t speak many languages, but I can say wine in quite a few. “Wine? Wein? Vino? Vinho? Vin? Vi?” Nope. I had exhausted my European repertoire and the waitress stood with the puzzled and slightly panicked air of a deer in the headlights. So I ran my hands through the air like a goblet and began to mime wine drinking: a lift, a look, a swirl, a sniff, a sip … The headlights must have been switched off because the waitress beamed with understanding.

Confident with our new found communicative bond I looked around for something red to communicate the rough style – appellation and varietal be damned – and found something red. After she registered the fruit’s colour she happily bustled off and I sat back, and congratulated myself on my burgeoning communication skills.

The waitress returned, but she wasn’t carrying a glass or a bottle. Her smile turned hesitant, but she triumphantly brought me my order: the largest bowl of freshly chopped tomatoes you’ve ever seen. Well, at least I wasn’t too thirsty.

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Troy Boileau

Traveler and SEO Specialist at Powered By Search

I moved to China without knowing any Mandarin. Interesting fact: Mandarin has five tones that effect the meaning of a word.

You would think that similar words would be grouped together so that the tone would mean a different but similar thing, such as “to have” and “to want” being the same word with different tones. Nope. The word for four means “death” if you pronounce it wrong. This gives me the sneaking suspicion that “It’s time to die” was actually just supposed to mean “It’s four o’clock.”

On another note, “question” as in “Can I ask you a question?” means “French kiss” if you pronounce it wrong. Guess how I figured that out!

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I want to thank everyone who shared their stories with me, it was a great experience!

Oh, and if you’re wondering, the movie I was watching where the lady had to eat a plate of snails? It still ended well when she and her date had a long walk on the charming streets of Paris. And how could a French adventure have ended poorly?

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