Getting Over the Language Barrier

  • HOW TO
  • LIVE and WORK
  • Before I left on my two month trip to Japan the #1 question I got from people back home was, “do you speak any Japanese?”.

    No, unfortunately, I do not.

    But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from taking an opportunity to work abroad. I tried to prepare by using language learning apps, but those were more for teaching grammar than actual phrases I would use in the office or getting around the city.

    I was essentially going in speechless when I landed in Tokyo not being able to talk to anyone who didn’t speak English. I was feeling helpless and a little culturally incompetent. I was hoping for the best, but still preparing for the worst when I was walking off the plane.

    The language barrier is difficult and intimidating, I won’t lie, but don’t let that deter you from visiting a new country. I’ve been able to manage and even pick up a few phrases since being here.

    Here is my advice and some tips on how to overcome language barriers in Tokyo and make your way around the city.

    Trains and Subways

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    Unless you’re from somewhere like New York or Chicago the train system, in general, will be really new and confusing. I was extremely intimidated the first time I rode the trains here, but within a week I was comfortable and confident enough to take a train by myself.


    Google Maps and the announcements are also spoken in English, that’s how.

    Google Maps will become your go-to for going anywhere around Tokyo, it’s far better than the iPhone Maps app. Not only will it pull up what train lines you need to take to get from point A to point B, but it will also tell you how many stops you will be on the train for, exactly where to get off and on, and walking directions from one station to the next. I haven’t got lost by it yet, and I feel completely confident to go almost anywhere in Tokyo with it.

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    I’ve been just fine riding trains and subways because announcements for what stop you are coming up to is given in both Japanese and English. It is both spoken and written on the digital screens in the train cars. Each stop is also numbered, so if you have a hard time remembering names that are foreign to you, you can just memorize the number of your stop.  

    A phrase I learned that is very helpful when riding the trains is, “sumimasen (soo-mi-ma-sen)”. Which means “excuse me” or “I’m sorry”.


    Some restaurants will have people who speak English and some will not.

    Some restaurants will have English menus and some will not.

    It really just depends from place to place. If you are in a more touristy area it is safe to bet that the bigger, more high-end places will speak some English. Restaurants in malls are also a more safe bet for English speakers.

    A phrase I learned that is extremely useful for any tourist eating out is, “ego (egg-oh) menu?”. Which means, “English menu?” I’d say more than half the time I’ve asked this I’ve been given a menu in English. Also, nearly all of the conveyer belt sushi places have the option to switch the language to English on the touchscreens you order off of.

    If worse comes to worst, pointing to pictures and using Google Translate is your best option. Google Translate has a camera option where you can hold it over the text you want to be translated and it will translate. It isn’t the best or most reliable translation, but it is better than nothing.

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    Many restaurants also have pictures of almost everything on the menu because menus here, I’ve found, have a much smaller and condensed selection. So just find something that looks good, point it out, and get ready to try something new!

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    Tourist Areas

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    If you are out in a high tourist area like big attractions, popular cities, and malls, there will likely be someone who speaks English. For example, people who work in big malls, museums, and places like Tokyo Tower will speak usually a limited amount of English. It is enough to ask basic questions about where you are and what to do.

    Although some people in these areas speak a bit of English, don’t expect it from everyone you go up to. My biggest advice when you are sightseeing is to watch what the locals do and follow that. For example, there is a specific ritual to perform before going into a temple area. Simply watch the steps of the locals and follow along.

    Buying things is actually very easy because it’s just all numbers. Keep track of the price of things you are purchasing, look at the total when checking out, and take out however much money you need. Scamming is not a thing in Japan so you never have to worry about being overcharged or scammed when buying at a store.

    Google Translate is also helpful in any place you go, while it isn’t perfect, it’s better than nothing. Just type in what you are trying to say, it will translate and you can just show the translation to whoever you are talking to and they will mostly understand. Locals are also good at using body language effectively, pointing and directing with arms and making other motions to help you understand what they are saying.

    At the End of the Day…

    Making it through a foreign country and not speaking the native language just takes patience and understanding body language. Download useful apps like Google Maps and Google Translate for extra help and just pay attention to what is going on around you. Sure, language barriers can be tough, but don’t let that hold you back from exploring new places!

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