Apps, translation services, and, well, a T-shirt.
English is pretty prevalent, but it's hardly ubiquitous. It's not even the most widely-spoken language (that's Mandarin). Fortunately, you don't have to be fluent in foreign tongue to break the language barrier. After all, learning a new language is scientifically proven to be difficult—really. And pictures may be a universal language, but travel-themed emojis of the Eiffel Tower and baguettes will only go so far when you're seeking a Parisian boulangerie.
Being bilingual is never a bad thing (and most people find it extremely attractive). But until you master a new dialect, consider these tips and tools for expressing yourself—and finding a bathroom—anywhere in the world.
Brush up on basics before you go
You can still cut large checks for language classes, or spend hours on your computer with Rosetta Stone. We suggest saving time and money by starting your studies on a smartphone app instead. Rather than verb recitation drills that hearken back to your high school Spanish class, today's high-tech language tools are actually fun. Duolingo (free) adds a game-like element to every lesson, and encourages users with streaks and goals to keep you coming back. For a small fee, there's Babbel ($11 per month) which rounds out the usual exercises with speech recognition to help you hone your pronunciation. We can't say you'll be a master, but you'll definitely grasp the basics before touchdown.
Download a translation app
In case your new language skills fail you once you arrive at your destination, translation apps can be incredibly useful. Perhaps the best-known (and maybe even the best overall) is Google Translate (iPhone and Android, free). It connects to your microphone so you can speak in your native language, and have the app dictate the translation in one of 90 languages to whoever you're communicating with. You can even take a picture of any written language (think: that baffling Arabic menu) and watch as the app instantly translates the text. Other great programs include iTranslate (iPhone and Android, free) and SayHi (iPhone and Android, $4.99).
Get extra help
Hire someone! Seriously. Just as you can recruit someone to stand in line for high-demand concert tickets, you can also enlist a translator in pretty much any country. And it's probably less expensive than you think. Toursbylocals.com, for instance, has a presence in 137 countries. Though their main focus is offering personalized tours around a city, these locals can easily bridge a language gap.
"All of our guides speak excellent English, and often multiple other [languages]," says the company's director of communications, Sara Cooke.
Other sites, like UpWork.com, also have translators for hire around the globe.
If all else fails, get this t-shirt
As a back-up, take the "universal language" approach and sport this clever ICONSPEAK World T-Shirt. All you need is a local willing to play a game of charades as you point to one of the 40 icons on the front of the shirt (Wi-Fi, for instance, or a clock). The company also sells tanks, hats, and bags.