The Language Barrier Is Not A Conversation Killer (How To Make Friends When You Don’t Speak The Language)

Meet Gregory, a writer and the brains behind Face Dragons. He's the go-to guy for getting things done. Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.

I’d been in Chiang Mai for over a week and the only person I’d spoken to was the barista. I wanted to approach the people walking past but I didn’t speak the language, what would I say? Where were they going? 15 years has past since then, I’ve made friends with people from all over without knowing their language, let me show you how to make friends with locals when you don’t speak the language.

If you’re a traveler, digital nomad, expat or just a tourist looking to make new friends abroad in a country where you don’t speak the language, this is the process you need to use.

  1. Find them
  2. Approach then
  3. Communicate
  4. Get their contact
  5. Plan something for next time

All of these steps are covered in this post to help you communicate with people that don’t speak your language and become friends. Use the links below to move around to the parts that most interest you.

Table of Contents

How To Find Local Friends When You Travel?

Traveling and living abroad brings with it it’s own set of challenges, sometimes it’s just meeting people.

You want to meet with some local people, perhaps to start learning the language or just to make friends. But where should you go to find local people to be friends with? On the one hand there are local people everywhere you go but they all seem to be busy, walking around, doing what they do.

When I first moved to Tianjin this was especially true. A huge city with over 10 million people and very few people speak any English. Since then I’ve used the tips below in many countries to find friends when I don’t speak the language.

I have a whole post of making friends while traveling, be sure to check that out too!

First Stop: Social Media & Online Language Exchange Forums

Communicate Online Don't Speak The Language

It goes without saying that the first place I look for new friends is online. In fact, you’ve more than likely already started looking there. But don’t only search for Facebook groups because they can be very hit-or-miss depending where you are.

Speaking With Locals Online

Where ever you are, most local people are not actively looking for foreign friends and most wont speak your language. Save yourself some time by looking for people that are want to make foreign friends or that speak your language.

Online you will find these people in:

  • Expat/tourist/digital nomad communities
  • Local communities
  • Language Exchange Communities

Checking Traveler communities for your location online, you will quickly see that there are local people who are looking to make foreign friends. They usually have some proficiency with English to post online and they can introduce you to other people too, whether or not they know your language.

You may need to use translation tools such as google translate to help you navigate through the language if you are looking for local online communities.

If you want to learn the local language, looking for language exchanges is bar far the best and easiest way to make friends. There are language exchange opportunities all over the internet both on social media and language learning apps.

Use this advice to find more language partners than you could ever need.

Translating language exchange + your location into the local language or target language will get you communities full of locals looking for foreigners rather than a group full of foreigners looking for locals.

Talk To Other Travelers Online

I get it, you traveled half way around the world to see a country you always wanted to visit and so you naturally want to make friends with people who are from there. But you can find people from all over the world who may be in the same location as you.

Talking to other foreigners doesn’t necessarily mean that they will speak your language so the tips below will still apply for talking to people who don’t speak your language.

They may give you the motivation for your next location. Or to start learning a new language.

Here are the best places online to find people to become friends with in any language.

  • Facebook Groups
  • Expat Sites
  • Local Bloggers
  • Twitter
  • Language Exchange Apps
    Hellotalk, Italki
  • Linkedin
  • Accommodation
    Couchsurfer, AirBnB
  • Backpackr

If you’re done with looking for friends online, the rest of this article will focus on the real world.

Find a Place to Stop And Chat

Become Friends When You Don't Speak The Same Language

You’re not going to make friends approaching people on the street. Would you stop and chat with someone who didn’t speak your language and approached you while on your way work? Exactly. You need to find a place where people stop a while, long enough to strike up a conversation and make friends, here are some options.

  • A Cafe
  • A Bar
  • A Bakery
  • A Library
  • A Bookshop

Learning How to approach & Get Someones Attention

So you’re at a cafe, a library or a bookstore, what next? How do you approach someone who might know know your language without it seeming awkward and weird?

Ask For help

The simplest way to start up a conversation with someone is to ask for help. You might ask where to pay, what’s best to order or ask if there is a museum/train station/anything nearby. You’re new in town so asking for directions is natural.

You don’t need to use much language to do this. Most people understand that foreigners want directions, a little bit of pointing and it’s clear.

Make a comment

Wow! Those doughnuts look good! Use thumbs up and point to the doughnuts to be sure they understand. It might seem simple but this is the easiest and most natural way to start up a conversation even if you don’t speak the language. You’re likely to get a smile and thumbs up back – ice broken.

You don’t need to make an entrance or use some weird pickup line. Just comment on whatever seems natural. I do this all the time, I might not make a new bestie but I’ve never had a bad interaction either.

It might take a little practice but I’ve had long conversations with Tibetan monks in Dharamshala simply by asking how the tea was.

Gauge the Response

Once you’ve broken the ice, you just need to gauge the response. Did they immediately turn back to their phone? Then they probably don’t want to keep talking with you.

If they ask you something else, move towards you or maintain eye contact, keep the conversation going. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to recognize this, you will just know.

Find a Place Where People Are Looking For Foreigners

This is a good strategy I always use when I’m in a new location. It’s especially useful if you feel awkward approaching people in a cafe or bar.

Finding a language school will make you really popular, really fast! Just make sure they are learning a language you speak! It doesn’t have to be a language school though, here are some other places you can find locals that want foreign friends.

  • Language School
  • College or University
  • Foreign Bookstore
  • Expat Bar

Locals that hang out at expat bars are there because they want to make expat friends. Use this to your advantage! I’ve found that if I turn up at an expat bar, locals will approach me, it really takes the pressure off. Sitting alone at the bar is usually the international signal for ‘approach me.’

You don’t need to wait to be approached though, when you order drinks at the bar see if there’s anyone there by themselves.

The phrase “What are you drinking?” has probably started more friendships than any other.

If you find a language school, foreign bookstore or somewhere else people are learning your language, talk to the people that work there first. Tell them you’re looking to find a language partner or just a local friend, they will probably be more than happy to help you or you might just hit it off with them.

I became fluent in Chinese by finding language partners like this.

Find a Place with a Common Interest Or Start A New Hobby

If you enjoy playing soccer, find a somewhere people are playing! If you’re a hiker, head for the hills. It’s easy to make friends when you have a common interest, so just go to where people do that thing!

  • Martial Arts Club
  • Sports clubs or playing areas
  • Photography Club
  • Juggling Club
  • Dance Club

This the easiest way to make friends. A shared interest is a real foundation to build a friendship on and doesn’t require you to even speak.

You just need to play the sport or engage in the hobby with them.

How to communicate when you don’t speak the language?

Communicate Without The Local Language

You’ve found some people and managed to break the ice, how do keep communicating when you can’t speak the language?

After I meet someone who doesn’t speak the same languages as me I ask for some language help. I can learn a little of the local language and make a new friend at the same time. It flows naturally from this situation, I just start by asking “how do I say …”

Asking them to teach you a little bit of vocab and improve your foreign language skills is not only a good way to start a conversation but it also gives you more and more to talk about.

“How do I say ‘camera’?”
“Bar Che”
“I like Bar Che! Look!” (Show them the camera)
(Bar Che is Tibetan for Camera)

Start With English

Like it or not, almost everyone you meet will have some basic English language vocabulary. I’ve met refugees in Dharamshala, Sherpas in the Himalayan region to Buddhist monks in Laos, they’ve all been able to have a basic conversation with me in English. So most people you meet in a cafe or on a sports team will, at least, have some basic English vocabulary. Understanding this will be a big advantage.

If speaking English isn’t an option, or just not enough to keep a conversation flowing don’t start speaking louder, you will need to rely on these four methods.

  • Body Language
  • Hand Signals
  • Drawing
  • Google Images

I used to grab a magazine and use the pictures to create talking topics but I don’t see that many magazines in cafes now. Google images is a good replacement. You can start speaking about anything using the pictures as clarification.

If you were good at charades when you were a kid, it’s going to come in handy. If you feel self conscious about acting out what you want to say, draw it on a napkin! If you can’t draw use google pictures.

What about Google translate?

Google translate is great if you really need to get a specific message across but if you just want to have a fun interaction with someone, Google translate will take the joy out of it. It will slow the conversation down to about 1-2 sentences a minute and most of that time you are just waiting for the other person to type – not fun.

How To Ask To Keep In Touch

If you muddled your way through a conversations without speaking the language, next you need to get their contact info. Forget phone numbers or email addresses, just find out which messaging app they use.

You’ll quickly find that each place you go has their own favorite messaging app, so make sure you know what most people use in your location.

The most popular messaging app in most countries is either Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger but not all countries use these. Here are a few countries that use different messaging apps.

  • China: Wechat
  • Korea: KakaoTalk
  • Taiwan: LINE
  • Japan: LINE
  • Vietnam: Zalo

Check your next destination against this list over at eagernomad.

What to do with friends that don’t speak the same language

Should I Invite Them Over? Should I Invite Them Out?

Unless you have an activity planned that you can do at your place that doesn’t require much talking, such as play video games, inviting them over will just be awkward. After the first 5 minutes you’re likely to run out of things to say that you can actually understand and they will want to leave ASAP.

Instead, invite them out to do an activity.

In a recent post I listed activities to do with friends. Activities you can do with someone that doesn’t speak the same language are different. Emphasize doing something, rather than going somewhere. Going to an archery range is something that doesn’t require much talking, walking round the mall does.

Activities For Friends That Don’t Speak The Same Language

  • Sports
  • Archery
  • Drawing or Painting
  • Photography Walk
  • Card Games
  • Chess or other board game
  • Play an online game
  • Movie (with subtitles)
  • Live Music
  • Massage or Spa
  • Hiking or Climbing
  • Extreme Sports (bungee jumping etc.)

Final Thoughts

These are the methods I’ve used over the years to make friends with people while traveling. Some of them have become real friends I still stay in touch with today and others are just a memory in a photo way down in a social feed.

Loneliness is a real problem among travelers, especially digital nomads and expats, don’t let it affect you too. Get out there and make some local friends!