Traveller's Dilemma: How to Order Food When You Don't Speak the Language

Tuesday, 11 September 2018
You've booked a trip overseas. You're beyond excited to take in the sights, the culture, and the history of the country you're visiting. You think you have everything prepared, but then you realise, you don't speak the local language. 

Your head starts flooding with questions. Do I need to become fluent before visiting? What happens if nobody speaks English? Am I going to be able to eat anything if I can't speak the language? How will I know if the dish has any food I'm allergic to? All of these questions may leave you less than comfortable when travelling abroad. But stress not! Here are some tips on ordering food when you don't speak the language. 

1. Research the local dishes
If you're someone like me who has a lot of food restrictions, travelling can be a little daunting. There's a lot of foods I cannot eat and will get extremely ill if I consume them. So before I head abroad, I do some research on local dishes. 

I search what the names of common dishes are and learn what ingredients are commonly found in the dishes so I have a rough idea of foods I can eat. Doing this has saved me when travelling to SE Asian countries as many foods contain ingredients I cannot eat. 

2. Learn basic phrases
Another incredibly important tip when travelling is to learn basic phrases in that language. I tend to learn, "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", "please", "I would like", "how much", and "I'm allergic to". These phrases tend to help greatly when ordering food. 

If you learn the names of various meats or fruit and veg before the trip, this can also be helpful. However, it's not always necessary (unless of course, you have a food allergy). While away on your travels, you'll quickly learn what food words mean and will be able to add these words to your repertoire. 

3. Don't be afraid to use pictures or hand gestures
Many of the restaurants I've eaten at abroad will have some photos on the menu. This is incredibly helpful if you're stumbling to find the words as you can just point. Be sure to research the cultural norms of the country as it is rude to point in some countries. 

Sometimes things get lost in translation, so gestures also come in handy. Just make sure you're not unintentionally offending someone, and you'll be golden. 

4. Google translate
If you're fortunate enough to have internet access, Google translate will be your friend. Absolutely stuck in a pickle, use Google translate to let people know what you would like to order or if you have any specific food allergies. 

Google translate isn't always 100% accurate so I always like to retranslate back to English to ensure what I've asked makes a little bit of sense. 

5. Eat at tourist spots
If you're too afraid to take a stab at the local language or are looking to quickly learn about local dishes, eat at tourist spots. Yes, they will be a little more expensive, but there isn't anything wrong with that (budget allowing). Tourist restaurants allow you the opportunity to become familiar with the foods and ask questions about the language and order while in a comfortable setting. 

Most waiting staff will be thrilled that you're even attempting to speak the language. I've rarely encountered an individual who wasn't willing to help enhance my language skills and many will gladly answer any questions you have. 

Travelling abroad is an exciting, rewarding adventure. You shouldn't fear the inability to order food. There are a lot of different ways in which we communicate, not all are verbal. So push yourself out of your comfort zone, expand your horizons, and learn about your fellow man. 

And until next time...
Stay curious!


  1. My biggest fear when traveling!! I am not adventurous with my food so ordering things I am not sure about makes me nervous. These are great tips!

  2. Yup pointing works, ask a local in line if they speak English, go to a a place with a specialty--- knowing you won't starve when you go abroad is a great incentive to travel.

  3. This is such a great guide for when I'm ordering and abroad. I def need Google translate lol!

  4. Great tips in here. I am with you, I always try to learn basic language when abroad - a simple 'I like or I'll have' will do and a please and thank you. Also bonus to anyone that researches local cuisine - you're likely to get a great meal that way.

  5. LOL. great tips. I normally use body language to make up but sometimes I do use google translate when it comes to dead end... LOL

  6. Great tips, I have traveled the world and have been lucky that they always understand either English or Spanish.

  7. really, traveling is itself a adventurous , right now i am at combadia with my kid and husband and our return flight has been cancelled just because of taypoon .....

    nice blog, love your last pic

  8. We had this problem before. In France I kept trying to get a cheese know crackers, grapes, cheese, lol. I kept getting a bowl of cream cheese.

    1. Oh my goodness! I definitely would laugh if that kept happening to me. I had a similar problem in France. I would order red wine and they would bring me white. I started pointing to the red napkin even though I'm almost positive I was ordering red wine correctly lol

  9. I couldn’t agree with this post more. I need a menuwith pictures, and we point.

  10. wwwwwaaaaah had this trouble in japan ... but.. what i did to survive was to show photos!!! truly photos saved my hungry ass

  11. For all the stories that I have heard about traveling, order food ones are hilarious. I think google translate is what most people use.

  12. Hand gestures are a saviour! I am almost always successful in communicating via gestures- thought I look insane doing it ;-)

  13. When I don't speak the local language I speak English :D though, not everybody on this planet understands it, even at a basic level. Generally I don't have problems, English is universal.

  14. I think I would go to a restaurant that has photos on their menu! haha Or at least there are posters hanging on the wall.

  15. Those are some useful tips. We use google translator . Prior to that used check the menu if it had photo on it.