Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

A: Trilingual.

Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingiual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks only one language?

A: American.

It's an old joke, but it still makes a good point. According to a 2001 Gallup poll only one in four people in the United States can hold a conversation in a second language. This might be because we have so few near neighbors who speak something other than English (Spanish is the most common second language in the U.S.).  But whatever the reason, most of us manage to get by speaking mostly English.

That's fine when we're home, but how much of a problem is it when traveling abroad? Not that much, say experienced travelers. Jesse Horne is a seasoned traveler who studies linguistics at the University of Massachusetts and just spent the summer meandering through Austria. According to Horne (one of the 25 percent of Americans who is not monolingual), "English has become such a global language that it is often not necessary to learn other languages. Most English-speaking countries place less importance [than in the past] on foreign languages, while other countries place more importance on learning English."

"If you want to learn about a culture, the best way is through language. Meet locals and ask them to teach you words and phrases in their own dialect."

Maaike Hoogstede, who lives in Rotterdam when she is not out seeing the world, agrees. "Dutch people are taught English at high school, and many television shows, movies and games are in English, and we just use subtitles, so basically everybody here speaks English in addition to Dutch," she says. "In Amsterdam people easily switch to English when foreign people join the group."

Use those charades skills

But all is not lost even when you do find yourself in a situation where no one speaks your language. Hoogstede, who has traveled in India, Nigeria, Ghana, Vietnam, and Taiwan, as well as the United States, has a low-tech solution: "When you don't speak the language, the easiest thing to do is to learn some basics to get around, and for the rest be as creative as possible: Point, act, mimic. It will work!" she promises.

While it can take many years and lots of hard work to get comfortable with a new language, learning a few basics isn't that hard. "I think music is a great way to start familiarizing yourself with a new language," says Horne. "Next, I'd say watching movies, listening to audio tapes—anything that immerses you in the language." If you want to pick up just enough of a foreign language to get by on a short visit, Horne suggests getting a small notebook and writing down 10-15 important phrases and about 25 important words. Keep the notebook with you and write down new words as you learn them.

If you do take time to learn more than the basics, you'll find the rewards are boundless. "One of the coolest things about language is that it is so closely tied to culture," observes Horne. "If you want to learn about a culture, the best way is through language. Meet locals and ask them to teach you words and phrases in their own dialect. It's great to learn words you'd never learn in a language class."

Recruiting the locals to help you learn their language is also a great way to make new friends—something most Americans are good at, even if they are mostly monolingual.