Finding your way in a country with a different alphabet

In daily life at home, it’s easy to ignore how much of one’s comings and goings are guided by signage. Street names, transit stops, retail shops, highway directions – the signs are everywhere and we follow them easily. For English speakers, traveling around a country that uses a Latin alphabet is easy enough to figure out. But way-finding in a country that uses a different alphabet or system of writing can be challenging. Taking a few steps ahead of time and being prepared with the right tools can help you keep moving in the right direction.

Learn key words in the local language

Expect to ask for help when you need directions at your destination. Learning just a few key words will make a surprisingly big difference. A good guidebook should have a basic set of core words and phrases. At minimum, learn how to say do you speak English?, hello, excuse me, please, thank you, yes and no. And some words are fairly universal the world over, such as okay and toilet.

If you need to ask someone, choose wisely

When you need to ask a local for assistance, choose someone who seems trustworthy and is likely to know. Shopkeepers are often a good bet, and may even have a few words of English. But gracefully decline anyone who seems overly eager to go with you and show you around. And, above all, be polite and friendly when you ask.

Buy a map

Purchase a good map of your destination and circle key locations you’ll need to find later, such as your hotel, landmarks you want to visit, and the airport. If you must ask for help, you may not be able to use words, but everybody understands what a map is, and you can point. If you are staying in a hotel, it’s also a good idea to ask for a business card in the local language and carry it with you.

Get comfy being a mime

You may feel silly, but you can communicate a lot with hand gestures. Everyone the world over understands the motions for eating, and this may help get you pointed in the direction of food. The motion of two hands on a steering wheel may be helpful in locating a taxi service. But make sure you understand which hand gestures in your destination country are considered offensive. Consult your guidebook for guidance. 

Consider a smartphone app

Many translation apps are available now for download, some even with audio translation. These are better used for translating signage than talking with people as there is no assurance that casual conversation will be translated 100% accurately.

Bring a notepad and pen

As you move around your destination, keep a notepad handy. If you learn the meaning of a sign or symbol, you can jot it down or sketch it for later reference. When asking a local for help, you can use it to draw a picture or set a direction.

If you have a SafeTrip Travel Protection plan and need directions to a hospital or clinic, call the emergency number on your plan ID card, and our Emergency Response Center will help you locate medical help in the local language.

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