How to ask for directions in a foreign country

You’re on the street in New York and need to get to the nearest subway. Or you’re in Beijing and trying to find the bus to take you to the Great Wall. Or you’re meeting friends at a pizzeria in Rome, a big city with a lot of different pizzerias.

This should all be easy. But if you aren’t sure where you’re going and don’t speak the language, it can turn into an embarrassing experience. There are ways that you can ask for directions, no matter where you are in the world and what language is around you.

Consider the following:

Know your location

You can always communicate where you want to go by using an app. It can teach you short and simple phrases and you can listen for the correct pronunciation. Alternatively, English is a global language, smile and keep it simple and someone will be able to help you.

Have some pictures or maps

Related to the point above, if you are uncertain about your pronunciation when asking for directions in a non-native language, it helps to carry a map, brochure or picture of where you want to go. A stranger can see where exactly your destination is and point you in the right direction. Carrying a pen to have them draw you a crude map is helpful too. As the old saying goes, ‘a picture can say a thousand words’, and in the case of asking for directions in a foreign country, this adage is completely true.

Use body language

Often travelers have to be like silent film actors when asking for directions. It sounds silly, but being able to use your hands, fingers, and even facial expressions can assist in making strangers understand where you want to go. Some travelers pose like the Statue of Liberty or draw in the air a shape of Egyptian pyramids with their fingers to give people an idea of what specific location they are seeking. This also helps to show a sense of humour that will put you at ease with unfamiliar people around you.

Incorporate native and local words

Students and travelers often don’t give themselves enough credit for their ability to learn a non-native language quickly or utilise what they learn quickly. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the native environment and what key words could be of use. For example, if you’re in London, you will quickly learn that native Londoners call their underground train system ‘the tube’, or that the ‘liveria’, taken from the word ‘livro’ or ‘book’, is bookstore in any Portuguese speaking country. Doing this helps listeners know the specifics of where you want to go while strengthening your own vocabulary simultaneously.

Don’t get worried

From Tokyo to Berlin, you might have trouble getting your direction request across to those you ask. Even if you studied the rudiments of the native language, your speaking might not be up to local dialect standards. You may also encounter people that appear aloof or uninterested in what you’re asking. Don’t get discouraged. Keep calm, refine your approach and be polite when asking. Eventually, you’ll find your way.

Practice makes perfect, and if you wish to improve your own English communication skills so that you can travel more to English-speaking countries, try The Language Gallery’s General English classes, as well as our electives and even private one-to-one courses. These courses will help you with traveling and communicating better in English.


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