The Language Barrier When Travelling Abroad

This is a collaborative post

We love going on holiday abroad, a beach-side holiday to Spain or France is an absolute favourite. I always find that travelling to a foreign country with a young family in tow is no mean feat and sometimes it’s down to our (lack of) knowledge of the local language. When you have a toddler who needs food/water/toilet NOW, it’s so handy to know those phrases that will help you out just in the nick of time.

According to a recent study by Holiday Autos, 27% of Brits make absolutely no effort to learn a language ahead of their holidays as “everybody speaks English”. However, I learned from first hand experience when I was 21 years old. I went to live in Barcelona as part of an Erasmus scheme and found that as Barcelona is such a multi-cultural city, the Spanish locals would so readily switch to speaking English even when I tried to practice a little.

Yet in the same study, I was staggered to read that out of the millions of Brits who holiday in Spain, most only know about 8 words in the local language. 23% of people are reported to go on holiday at resorts to reduce the need to speak anything but English even further. I found that quite sad to read, as I really enjoy travelling to different parts of the world and experiencing the food and culture there.

We’ve all had that classic moment when we tried to speak the foreign language and our efforts just got lost in translation. I remember on one school trip to France, a friend thought he’d ordered five (‘cinq) coca colas but actually ordered FIFTY (cinquante). Thankfully the cashier figured it out before he dived right in and started making drinks for the next half hour.

The lengths people go to to be understood are incredible, with the study revealing that 35% of Brits claim to start speaking slower. Another quarter of people start gesticulating frantically with their arms in a hope that the local at their holiday destination will be able to decipher what they need. My brother’s (not so) top tip while travelling through South America was to add an ‘o’ to any English word and hope locals would understand him. Needless to say, his plan was not foolproof.

As you can see, the survey has brought light some interesting facts about how Brits handle conversations in a foreign language while on holiday. If anything, it showed that we are still confident in trying to express ourselves despite not being fluent in the language, which I think is a wonderful thing. Holiday Autos have also produced a great video called ‘Lost in Translation’ with humorous stories of Brits travelling abroad. You can watch the video here:

This year, when we travel abroad with the family – I’ll be sure to teach the children some of the French and Spanish phrases I have learnt over the years to prepare us. I think it always show a little respect for the locals to at least try to say a few words, even if you are not speaking in perfect sentences. Hopefully we won’t get too lost in translation along the way…wish us luck!

Do you make an effort to learn a foreign language before going abroad?



  1. June 29, 2017 / 3:33 pm

    Bridget, I think it’s good to make an attempt at learning a bit of the language before traveling to a country. I think people appreciate that you made the effort, even if they do switch immediately to English for your benefit.

    • June 29, 2017 / 3:34 pm

      I completely agree – it’s no harm learning a few key words just to show you made the effort 🙂 Thanks Jean x

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