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When it comes to shopping, if there is a will, there is usually a way to finalize a transaction.  We find the old "point it out" technique works well.  Read our article for some suggestions on how to refine your technique when you do not know the language.  


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Travel Advice -   Shopping and the language barrier

In many foreign destinations, especially major cities, lack of fluency in the local language is not a significant barrier to shopping, as many clerks speak some English. If you are in a location where you are unlikely to find a sales clerk who speaks English, confirm your suspicion by phrasing “English” as a question to the sales assistant. Often, the response will surprise you.

In order to shop everywhere regardless of language, do a little research.

  • Learn how to greet the sales clerk in the country's language.
  • Follow that up by pointing at what you want to purchase and asking “how much” in the local language.
  •  If you do not understand counting numbers in that language, give the clerk a piece of paper and gesture indicating that you would like them to write the number on the paper.
    • Of course, you will not find this solution workable in countries whose languages and number representations are not Latin based, such as Chinese or Japanese*.

When possible, shop using your credit card for purchases, as you will generally receive a fair exchange rate. Be sure to check the receipt before you sign it in order to ensure that the sale price listed is the one shown on the tag price of the item you are purchasing.

*The pointing technique was of great assistance in Japan when I entered a coffee shop on a cold and blustery December day hoping to find a cup of hot cocoa. The staff and I went a few rounds of misunderstanding before they passed me a menu and there it was ... a picture of “hot chocolate”.  I pointed at the likely brew and, in unison, the staff replied “Ahhhhhhhhhh, hot chocolate”. We all laughed, but I got my cocoa.


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