It’s important to make a serious attempt to learn the language of new countries you visit. Not only does it make the logistics of getting around much easier, but it also will endear you to locals, who appreciate the effort. It’s a sign of respect and the hallmark of a culturally sensitive, smart traveler.
However, it doesn’t really make sense to become fluent in a new language if you’re only going to need it for a very short amount of time. I typically travel for about two weeks at a time and visit two to three countries each trip. I definitely make a solid effort to learn as much as I can, but it’s not realistic to drop hundreds of dollars and many hours on something like Rosetta Stone for a four-night stay. In fact, many language-learning programs are geared toward people who want to become fluent, not travelers and, as a result, don’t focus on the words and phrases you’ll need right away.
As a traveler, I find myself saying certain things over and over in each country — it’s these key phrases you need to learn how to say in each language before you leave.
General words and phrases
“Do you speak English?” is probably the most important and frequently used. When I’m unsure about how to say something in the local language, I’ll open with this. Memorize this question, and you may save yourself a lot of time and confusion.
“Hello” and “goodbye” are critical, as well as “please,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry” and “excuse me.” In many languages, “I’m sorry” is for situations far graver than simply bumping into someone in the street. In Spanish, you are more likely to hear “perdon” than “lo siento,” for example.
Learn to say “My name is ____” and “I’m from _____,” in case you find yourself in polite conversation with curious locals.
Directional words like “left” and right” come in handy, as well as “how,” “where is” and “before” and “after.” You may not completely understand the response, but at least you’re likely to get a few words out of it and a point in the general direction.
You eat a lot of meals in restaurants when traveling, so knowing how to navigate a menu in another language will help you understand what you’re ordering. Because it’s impossible to know every word, I often use a translation app. Word Lens is a great one — you just hover over the word, and it translates it automatically; it even works offline.
“I would like” or “May I have” and then pointing at the menu item you want will suffice for ordering. You may also want to know how to ask, “Where is the bathroom?”
Shopping and transactions
You’ll definitely want to learn numbers one through 10. I always forget to do this and realize I need it. “How much?” is an often-used phrase that you will find yourself saying much more frequently than you think!
In the United States, we rely heavily on credit cards, but many countries do not. You’ll often find minimums or no credit card option at all. Know how to ask if a business takes credit cards and where you can find the nearest ATM.
Keep these key traveler’s phrases written down somewhere you can access easily and offline when traveling — perhaps as a note in your smartphone — and be sure you learn the pronunciation so you say them correctly enough for people to understand.
By arming yourself with knowledge of these common phrases, you’ll have a much easier time on the road — and potentially a far more authentic experience.
Photos by Megan Van Groll