Southeast Asia The Art of Travel Vietnam

Language Barriers – Surviving Total Miscomprehension

Traveling means seeing new cultures, and seeing new cultures means submerging yourself in new languages unless you’re really playing it safe. We don’t play it safe on ADVENTURE: How-To and this guide is about surviving in complete miscomprehension. Once you take the leap and insert yourself into uncomfortable and incomprehensible situations, you will find that surviving language barriers  is actually easier than you think. Allow me to introduce sign language.

Overcoming Language Barriers with Sign Language

Here’s a shocker – you know how to use sign language without even knowing it. Don’t believe me? Enter your language barrier-ridden destination of choice and watch the magic unfold. Don’t waste your time learning sign language from a professional since you will only be able to communicate with people who did the same. Instead, embrace the universal sign language all humans understand; waving your arms, pointing, pretending to write with an invisible pen on an invisible piece of paper or whatever else the situation calls for. Language barriers are meant to be broken.

All you need to survive on the road in language barrier-land is money, food and shelter. Money is easily taken care of; simply put some in your pocket or go earn some. Food and shelter on the other hand is harder to get your hands on and this is where sign language comes in handy.


Getting food in a country plagued with language barriers is hard. I experienced this first-hand in Vietnam where me and my fellow traveler had to eat cow stomach instead of steak, crackers instead of Banh Mi Dac Biet and warm beer with snails instead of something better. Vietnam was actually my least favorite gastronomic adventure because we took the dirt-poor countryside moped route instead of sticking to the big cities. I’ll continue ranting about that in a future post on Vietnam.

To get food with sign language, start with your most basic needs and build on your gestures from there. Below is a bare-bones sign language dictionary of how to acquire and communicate food-related topics such as hunger or food. They are excellent means of communication when faced with language barriers.

Food Gesture List

  • Feeling hunger: Rub your tummy in a circular motion while grimacing. This breaks all language barriers while expressing your hunger.
  • Eat #1: Shape your hand into a claw and move it towards your mouth in a slow fashion. Open your mouth wide and take a big bite of your imaginary sandwich. For additional clarity, look at your subject and nod while saying “mmm”.
  • Finding a restaurant: Repeat the claw-shaped hand gesture but as soon as you have taken your imaginary bite, look around and point your index finger while panning your arm towards surrounding businesses and buildings. Rub your tummy again and nod to get the point of “looking for a restaurant” across.
  • Feeling thirst: Sigh repeatedly while waving your hand in front of your face as if trying to cool off. Shake your head and sigh again. You will now appear hot. Progress by exaggerating the act of drinking a full glass of imaginary water. Slowly nod towards the subject multiple times while maintaining eye contact. Your subject will now think that you are thirsty.
  • Eat #2: Since you might be doing this in Asia, consider that sandwiches are not as common as rice and noodle bowls. An alternative to Eat #1 is to arrange your fingers like if you where holding chopsticks and moving them towards your mouth repeatedly while chewing and slurping. You are now communicating that you want rice or noodles – language barriers be gone.


Shelter can be acquired in a similar fashion to food but by changing the gestures involved. When you are sleepy, you yawn. When you go to bed, you close your eyes. If we build on these facts we can construct new complex expressions for everything-shelter. Below are some ways to penetrate more language barriers.

Shelter Gesture List

  • Feeling sleepy – Yawn in font of your subject (while covering your mouth) and close your eyes. Shake your head a few times back and forth and open your eyes. Now, place your hands together in the praying position and slide them under your cheek while tilting your head sideways. Your subject will perceive you as being sleepy.
  • Feeling really tired – Pretend to doze off in front of your subject by closing your eyes and making your legs wobbly. Don’t overdo it as you might come off as drunk. Tilt your head backwards and snore a few times, then tilt it back. Utilize the praying-hands-under-tilted-cheek gesture to communicate your extreme fatigue to your subject. Language barriers will be broken and your point will come across clearly.
  • Finding a hotel – Repeat the moves and facial expressions from the first bullet point. After that, look around at your surroundings while expressing curiosity. Extend your arm and index finger. Swipe your arm left and right across the surroundings while looking at your subject. Apply the praying-hands-under-tilted-cheek gesture again and then nod repeatedly. You have now successfully communicated that you are looking for accommodation.

If you properly applied the techniques above you should have no problem overcoming language barriers. That’s more fun for you since the world with all its remote and inaccessible destinations now  becomes your oyster.With sign language, all language barriers can be broken. Embrace your inner mime and food and shelter shall find you wherever you go. As Wes would put it – get lost, look stupid, have fun. Remember, sign language can take you where no other language can take you – unless you speak all 6,500 of them.

2 replies on “Language Barriers – Surviving Total Miscomprehension”

Thanks! Based on the basic gestures, you would stare at the waiter attentively while pointing at your food. Then pinch your index finger and thumb, turn them upside down over your Pho and start shaking. Haha, good luck =)

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