Ask Gadling: What if I don’t speak the language?

Today’s question comes from Justin in Boise, Idaho:

“I’m going on a vacation to Zurich next month. My girlfriend chose the place. I don’t speak any German. Neither does she. Are we going to die?”

Gadling: Everyone dies someday, Justin, but not speaking German will probably not be the end of you.

It just so happens that I went to Zürich last month. Like you, I speak not a word of German. However, it turns out that German wouldn’t have helped much. In Switzerland, they speak Swiss German, which Germans can barely understand.

I’d love to tell you “don’t worry, everyone speaks English there,” but they really don’t. The people at your hotel probably will, and they can direct you to some restaurants and activities where there will be English speakers, but you’re definitely going to be in some situations where you just plain can’t converse with the locals. You will be thankful for your girlfriend, just for somebody to talk to. Here are some tips for getting along:

1. Have the hotel people teach you to say “Do you speak English?”
in Swiss German.
You could say it in English, but it’s more polite to ask in the primary language of wherever you are. Even if you say it poorly, people will appreciate the effort — and that gets whatever conversation (or rigorous gesturing) you’re starting off on the right foot.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

2. Use silly tricks to remember street names.

Languages like German include some very long and complicated street names. If you look at the whole word, like “Waffenplatzstrasse,” it can be a little intimidating, and thus, impossible to remember. That can be a problem when you’re trying to get back there later; you don’t even know what to look for on the map. Firstly, keep in mind that “strasse” just means “street,” so the only part you need to remember is Waffenplatz. Sounds like … “Waffle place.” That’ll work. As long as you can get the first four or so letters into your head, you should be able to recognize it when you see it again.

3. When shopping, just watch the till.

In Europe, numbers are pretty much the same. Someone ringing up your snacks doesn’t even need to know you don’t speak their language — just watch the numbers on the till and count out the money. A thank you in the local tongue is a nice touch, and it can be a big thrill to feel like maybe they didn’t know you weren’t fluent.

4. Bookmark Google Translate.

If you have an internet-enabled phone and plan to roam internationally, bookmark Google Translate or a similar site on the phone. When deeply in doubt, you can quickly check a word or phrase. For example, you might see a sign by a door and not know whether it says “Come in” or “Staff only.” It’s easy to find out. If you’re not going to have internet access, it’s best to invest in a pocket dictionary (though that makes you look really touristy — nothing wrong with that, but it can be dangerous to be conspicuously confused).

5. Visit the Tourist Info center.

In Zürich, you can find a Tourist Info center right in the main train station, and there are others throughout the city, as well as in most other major European cities. Look for a prominent “i” on most city maps. The Tourist Info center is a great resource for things you can do around town — even off-the-beaten-path things. They’ll have a wealth of brochures printed in English and can improve the quality of your trip 100 percent or more, especially if your hotel concierge is a dud (or your hotel doesn’t have one).

6. Keep a small notepad with you.
As a last resort for when you are trying desperately to pantomime “toothpaste” and nobody seems to understand you, it can be helpful to have a notepad and pencil with you. Draw it.

Good luck to you, Justin, and have a great time in Switzerland!