For example, how did Marco Polo manage to communicate with the Chinese and the Mongolians during his travels?

Did he learn Chinese? Did he manage to find a Chinese translator somehow? Was there a sort of a chain of translators from Marco Polo's language to whatever language the local people spoke?

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    simple answer, you would learn their language, or in the case of conquerors you would force the conquered to learn your language. if you had the money, and the country your visiting isn't "new" then yes hiring a translator is an option. But when your one of a hand full of people visiting a country for the one of the first times, it falls to you to learn the language yourself. – Himarm Feb 10 '15 at 14:09
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    Marco Polo was speculated to know Turkish, Persian, and Mongolian. He most likely never learned Chinese, since there was little reason to since the mongols ruled china at the time. Marco polo would have learned these languages through steps, he most likely learned turkish and persian in his journeys too china, as his guides/companions would have known these languages and had some familiarity with the italian he was speaking, upon reaching china Persian would have worked as a primary language from which to learn Mongolian as there were many who spoke both. in the khans court. – Himarm Feb 11 '15 at 20:15

Usually a translator would be found.

People like Marco Polo who lived in foreign locations learned the local language, Mongolian in the case of the Yuan empire. Note that Mongolian was spoken widely in Central Asia at that time, so Marco Polo could have started learning it even before he reached Cathay.

  • Are there any historical descriptions of how this process worked? Since there were no dictionaries or language books of any kind, it must have been quite a challenge to learn a new language. – JonathanReez Feb 10 '15 at 14:21
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    Ugh points at water and says "water", Nogo points at the water and says "us" - there one word down and ten million to go. – CGCampbell Feb 10 '15 at 15:25
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    @JonathanReez Yeah, it is, 3-year-olds complain to me about it all the time. I just tell them "Don't worry, as soon as you can read a baby-to-English dictionary it will get a lot easier." – Tyler Durden Feb 10 '15 at 16:08
  • it takes a mater of months for an adult fully submerged in a foriegn speaking country to pick up the language, not fully of course but at conversational levels, and depending on the person it can be shorter. we have examples of this in afriacan countries today, where english speaking missionaries travel to remote regions speaking remote dialects/ location specific languages, picking up the language in a few months, proceed to write down their language for the first time, and then translate the bible into their native languages. its hard, its a pain, but it happens alot, and relativly fast. – Himarm Feb 10 '15 at 21:13
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    and typically well financed expeditions come with people whose job it is to learn the language and teach you, their whole point is to spend all day learning from natives, and then bringing it back to the rest of the group/becoming translators for the group. – Himarm Feb 10 '15 at 21:16

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