How to Communicate Around the Globe Without Words

Last week, we spoke about the top languages to help you travel the world. As helpful as these languages are, they will only help to facilitate communication with around 60% of people on Earth. When you are travelling through several countries that have different languages, it becomes almost impossible to learn phrases from every language. So what do you do when you hit an area where you can’t speak the language? You can do your best mime impression, or you can use symbols to communicate around the globe without words.

Universally Recognisable

Many symbols are universally recognised around the world. If you’ve been to Europe or Australia, you’ve probably seen Brown Tourist Signs somewhere. They are a set of over 90 uniform symbols to help tourists find places of interest. You’ve also probably seen a ‘No Smoking’ sign. Anyone, no matter what language they speak, knows what that one means. Whether they take note of it is another matter. It’s infuriating how many times I’ve seen people smoking right under/near no smoking signs in countries all around the world. Smoking is bad, mmmkay!

Communicate Around the Globe Without Words – Transport

Unless you plan on walking everywhere in a new country, you’re going to need to take transport at some point. But how can you find the train if you don’t know how to say train? Transport options can be very regionally specific. For example, places with islands are likely to have ferry services. Many regions do not have train services. Other regions have tourist transport options like cable cars, monorails and funiculars. Here we’ve included signs for the main types of transport you would encounter in most places.

Primary Transport

The most common forms of primary transport are planes, buses, trains and taxis. In many regions, notably Latin America and Africa, minivans and shared taxis/collectivos replace bus services. Some cities also have tram services and ferry services. Here we’ve provided symbols for all of these. If you want your own copy of these, you can click on the picture to download your own PDF and keep it on your phone to show people when you’re in a new place.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Primary Transport
Primary Transport Symbols

Alternative transport options involve some regional or touristy forms of transport. For instance, monorails, which are generally more of a gimmick than useful city transport. In many countries throughout Asia, Latin America and Africa, you can find Tuk Tuks, also known as Autos, Rickshaws and Kekehs depending on the region you’re in. Funiculars and Cable cars are more often than not found at touristy places. Especially when there are hills involved.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Alternative Transport
Alternative Transport Symbols

In some areas you can find water taxis in the form of Sampans, Gondolas and speedboats, among others. Sometimes, you just need to grab a bike and make your own way there.

Services

After you’ve sorted your transport, you might need to find out where certain services are. I guess the most important things that people look for when they first get to a new place are WiFi and ATMs. To be honest, if you just say the words ‘WiFi’ or ‘ATM’, people will know what you mean in most places. If they don’t, they’ll definitely know what these signs mean!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Services
Service Symbols

These symbols can also help you if you’re looking for a shopping centre, a library, toilets, a museum or a stadium/Sport Centre.

Communicate Around the Globe Without Words – Where are the Tourist Sites?

When you land in a new city, you’ll no doubt want to find out where the good tourist sites are. Or you might get lost on your way to the site and need to ask a local for directions. Of course, the best place to get information is a place where the staff are likely to speak English. This would be the nearest Tourist Information Centre. If that’s nowhere near, then give these symbols a go!

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Sites
Site Symbols

We’ve covered the most visited tourist sites, including viewpoints/lookouts, churches, mosques, castles, city centres, UNESCO sites and information centres.

Accommodation

From experience, it can often be difficult to find your accommodation in a new place. Whether you’re trying to find some accommodations for the night, or you’ve already booked a hotel, motel, airbnb, hostel, homestead, yurt/ger or a tent, these symbols should help you get there.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Accommodation
Accommodation Symbols

If you’re lucky, someone at your accommodation might be able to speak English. More often than not in off-the-radar countries you can’t rely on that to be true.

Communicate Around the Globe Without Words – Entertainment Facilities

So you’ve got yourself settled in and you want to check out what’s happening in town. Where can you find yourself a meal or a good cup of tea or coffee? Or maybe you want something stronger, like a beer? We’ve got some symbols for that.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Entertainment
Entertainment Symbols

We’ve also got pictures for plays, movies, concerts and karaoke because that always seems like a good idea after a beer.

Communicate Around the Globe Without Words When Dining

Dining in foreign countries can be rather difficult if you have special dietary needs and cannot communicate them effectively. In fact, some would say it’s a nightmare. Especially if you have allergies. It’s no fun to carefully pick at your food, or just leave it uneaten because you’re scared of what could be in it.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Dining
Dining Symbols

That’s where these symbols come in. They should all be easily decipherable for anyone. We’ve covered common allergies like nuts, pepper and dairy. There’s even one for the vegetarians that can be used in conjuction with others for vegans, as well as a no sugar one for people on Keto. If you’re a Keto Vegan with nut and pepper allergies, just go ahead and use all of them!

Natural Sites

The best part of any trip is finding the natural gems in your destination, right? Whether it be waterfalls, desert canyons, tranquil lakes, snow-tipped mountains, meandering rivers, the beach or national parks, who doesn’t want to see it all?

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Nature
Nature Symbols

Once you make it to your natural paradise, What will you do? You can use our next set of symbols to find out what activities are available there!

Activities

If you’re someone who loves a bit of physical activity, you’re almost certainly always looking for your next thrill. You’ll love these symbols then. We’ve got you covered if you want to go hiking, ziplining and hang gliding. There are also some snow sports in there, or kayaking and swimming if you prefer being on or in the water.

K in Motion Travel Blog. Communicate Around the World Without Words. Activities
Activity Symbols

Now, the last activity here is probably not for everyone, but at least with this symbol you won’t have to try to work out how to mime bungy jump without injuring yourself!!

Take the ‘Communicate Around the World Without Words’ Mini e-book With You!

Do you want your very own e-book to keep handy for use when you really need it in foreign lands? Then feel free to download our mini e-book, Communicate Around the World Without Words for all the symbols above in one place. We compiled it specifically to help you on your journey, so please, enjoy! :o)

Do you only want one of the above pages? No problem. Click on any of the pictures above to download the corresponding PDF. Let me know if you find it helpful! :o)

If you want to be inspired by some things that you can do and see around the world, check out the following posts

Amazingly Unique Adventures Around The World
Sunsets Around the World
Amusingly Funny Signs Around the World
Mesmerising Lakes Around the World

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45 Replies to “How to Communicate Around the Globe Without Words”

  1. I love this. While I think it’s important to make an attempt to learn a little bit of a language when you travel to a new place, there are also SO many ways we can still communicate without sharing a language at all!

    1. Yup. If there’s one thing that travel has taught me, it’s that there’s more than one way to communicate.

  2. This is such an original article, I love it! I studied Communication and loved learning about cultural differences in body languages but have also learned so many great examples during travelling. The gesture for ‘do you want a drink?’ for example is so different from what we use in the Netherlands and the gesture used in Spain. However, while I love discovering such differences, it can also be a bit of a hassle and confusing so thanks again for your informative article :-)

    1. Travelling certainly teaches you a lot about communication! I’ve also noticed some differences in gestures in China, where the gesture for ‘6’ looks like the gesture people in other countries would use for ‘phone’, haha.

    1. Translation apps can be hilariously wrong at times. It would be nice to be able to speak the language everywhere you go but if you plan on going to more than a few countries, it gets rather difficult!

  3. In some ways symbols are a form of language in themselves enabling us to understand each other and / or know how to behave. My favourite ones are those with beautiful iconography or those which are unintentionally funny!

    1. Some of the most ancient languages used symbols or pictographs as the written form of their language. One picture can communicate a lot!

  4. I typically prepare signs with hotel names and addresses before we travel to a country where people will likely not speak English.
    For everything else, google translate and a global data plan has really been helpful.

  5. This is awesome and definitely comes in handy! During my travels, I’ve seen a few signs that I had no idea what they were supposed to be about. I would have definitely preferred more recognizable signs.

  6. This is a cool idea. On my first trip to Argentina, I didn’t speak Spanish, and it was hard to get around when you leave Buenos Aires. I wish I had these printed symbols back then. But what I decided to do is learning Spanish :) and now I can get along there mich better.

    1. I only knew about 5 phrases in Spanish when I turned up to Nicaragua, but within a week I was able to have some basic conversations.

  7. This is a neat idea. The first time I visited a foreign country and didn’t know the language I experienced quite the culture shock. Luckily many there ended up knowing English, so it worked out, but it definitely made me prepare more for future trips. I never thought about brining something like this with me, but I will be sure to do that in the future. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I never really had much culture shock when travelling, but it has been hard at times to get across exactly what I mean. Sometimes speaking the language doesn’t always help, but symbols are pretty universal.

  8. This is such an interesting post. I love it. It promotes accessibility and making a destination more inclusive to visit.

  9. It’s funny, I think the main issue we have had when travelling is not being able to call a taxi (we normally head to a tourist information desk to ask if they can do it for us.

    I always loved that in Japan they have photo menus, or images of the food made out of plastic, so I never had problems ordering, even before I could speak Japanese. If you don’t have that, your picture book would work brilliantly!

    1. I never really take taxis actually so I’ve never had that problem.

      I love the super-real looking food displays in Japan. I was so amazed by them when I did my student exchange there many years ago. I learnt Japanese in high school, so I definitely knew enough to not have any problems the first time I went there. These days, I’ve forgotten more than I remember, so I might have problems, haha.

    1. As someone who speaks five languages and has checked some translations between those languages on Google translate, I can tell you it gets stuff shockingly wrong sometimes. Plus internet is not always available for it to work. So it’s always handy to have a back up.

  10. I try to learn some key phrases before I travel – learning some German before going to Vienna was the most difficult. The taxis are often difficult.

    1. It’s always good to learn some key phrases. Funnily, I know how to say cheers and thank you in about 20 languages, but that doesn’t help me get anywhere! Hehe.

  11. I don’t think I’ve read a post about this topic before. Great idea! Symbols are so useful when traveling the world and having them in an ebook is a bonus.

  12. Great topic! Whenever I’ve traveled to places where English is not commonly spoken, hand signs have always helped me get across my message to the locals! Surprisingly, a lot of countries have similar gestures for different meanings!

    1. I’ve not come across it myself, but I have heard of misunderstandings arising from gestures having different meanings in different places.

  13. Knowing certain symbols is key when traveling around the world! There are some that I still have to commit to memory.

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