Living Overseas With No Language

Greetings from Bishkek! I’m now living in Central Asia! I’ll be in Kyrgyzstan for the next two months before moving to Almaty in June. It’s great to finally be back in this part of the world, and in the coming weeks I’ll share further about my first impressions of this country and the culture that I’m looking to adapt to. On Sunday I left Turkey, where I’d been visiting friends for the past three weeks. As I wasn’t staying in the country for very long, I had no plan to formally learn the language, which made it challenging at times to get around the cities I visited.

In 2010 I had a similar experience, spending nearly three weeks in Mexico having learnt no Spanish, and somehow I managed to explore three different cities and two ancient pyramid sites in the country using only my Lonely Planet guidebook! From these experiences I’ve decided to write a post focusing on two useful pointers if you’re planning to visit a country where English isn’t spoken by the majority as a second language, and how you can get by for a couple of weeks without any formal language learning.

Make Friends Who Speak the Language
Having friends in Turkey who speak the Turkish language, both locals and expats, helped me to get by whilst I was visiting this country. They can order for you when you’re out at restaurants together, direct your taxi to the right destination and haggle over prices for you at the local market. If they’ve lived in the city for a while, they can also provide you with an orientation so that you know how to use local transport and buy groceries, as well as inform you of any cultural taboos when you’re out in public.

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If you don’t have any friends in the country you’re visiting, my best recommendation is to go out and make some! Many big cities have CouchSurfing events or Meetup groups that you can join. I’ve stayed with CouchSurfers over 50 times and I’d highly recommend it as a way to meet local people, learn about the culture and if your host isn’t busy, explore the city with them.

Get a Local SIM Card and Use Your GPS
As a frequent traveller, I knew that when I arrived in Turkey I wanted to get a SIM card, mostly so I could use the Internet. SIM cards are often cheap to get overseas, and many have set packages that need topping up once they’ve run out. As I only stayed in Ankara for three weeks, I opted for the cheapest package from TurkTelecom, which cost me 50 lira (about £11) and came with 250MB data. I managed to run on this for the first two weeks, by which time I knew the city centre fairly well. When it started to run low, I began to navigate around the city without using GPS to the best of my ability.

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GPS apps like Google Maps are generally very up to date with the latest routes to get around the city by foot, public transport and by car. If I was in a hurry to meet someone, I often checked to see how far it was by taxi, as short journeys in Turkey were relatively inexpensive and within my travel budget. I used to show my taxi driver the route on my phone, and they figured out how best to get me to my destination. The most important time I used Google Maps in Turkey, however, was when I was on a local bus in Istanbul. It was taking me to Sabiha Gökçen airport, however the bus was very slow and stopped far too often. From Google Maps I worked out that I’d miss my flight if I stayed on the bus, so I got off it as soon as I could and took a taxi. Thankfully it got me to the airport by the skin of my teeth to catch my flight!

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