If you speak English, then you are very lucky. Many people around the world who deal with tourists learn to speak English. It is essential for them to survive in a travel-based industry. Thanks to technology, Google Translate and other programs like it can talk and listen for you. This makes it so much easier to be an adventurist and travel to places you know very few will speak English.
If you really like to travel to remote places, then you are more likely to run into people that do not speak English. Or be out of cell phone reception, and not able to use an app like Google Translate on your phone. Maybe theft is a problem where you are traveling, and you are afraid to whip out your phone if it is not absolutely necessary.
You never know when you will need to speak the language of the country you are visiting, so it is best to brush on the basics. Before you step foot on that plane, make sure to learn these 10 basic phrases essential for travel in any foreign country:
- Greetings & goodbye
- Do you speak English?
- Please & thank you
- I am sorry
- Where is?
- How much?
- I would like to order… food & drinks
- Help me!
first BUY A PHRASEBOOK
First you will need to buy a phrasebook for the language of the country you are visiting. I always love Lonely Planet guidebooks and phrasebooks. Lonely Planet makes updates all the time, so make sure to find the latest version. Here are links to a few common languages on Amazon. You can search for a Lonely Planet phrasebook in the language you need, then scroll down to see if there is an updated version.
Greetings & Goodbye
Be able to say the word “hello,” “welcome” or whatever the local form of “greetings” is. This makes for a great first impression. It shows that you are not a regular tourist that doesn’t care about the locals. It shows initiative and compassion. People are more likely to want to help you.
Make sure to learn the mannerism of that greeting. Do you shake hands or do you bow your head? Do you make eye contact or is that considered disrespectful? If you are a woman, does your gender require special rules of engagement? Make sure to practice your greeting at home. If you have been extending your hand for shaking all your life, it is harder than you think to switch over to bowing your head.
Many countries have separate phrases for “good morning”, “good afternoon,” and “good evening.” It is very common to hear “good morning,” so that may also be a good phrase to know as well. “Good afternoon,” and “good evening” are less common, so you generally don’t need to worry about those. Every time I have said “good afternoon” or “evening” I got a strange look. Now, I don’t bother learning those phrases.
Saying “goodbye” is another great way to leave a good impression. Again, you will want to learn the hand and body gestures that go with it.
Do you speak English?
Follow up your greeting with “do you speak English?” Now the locals LOVE you. Knowing this phrase shows that you do not make the pompous assumption that everyone in the world should know English.
If you are speaking to someone that does speak English, chances are you will not even be able to squeak this phrase out. They will already be speaking English to you. If you are in a remote location where many people do not speak English, then this phrase will be invaluable to you. If no one speaks English, then it’s time to get out Google Translate or use body language to convey your meaning.
Please & Thank you
Please, learn the words “please” and “thank you.” It shows that you are traveler with manners.
When you are traveling in a foreign country you will want to eat out or have drink. Try saying “please” after your order and see the response you get. Note: that not all countries have a word for please. For stance, when traveling in Tahiti, my husband and I learned that “please” is conveyed in the expression of a question or the inflexion in one’s voice.
Speaking of manners, “thank you” is even more important to learn and perhaps easier to use. If you didn’t squeeze in a please while ordering your food, definitely try to interject a thank you once it arrives. Again, you must research if “thank you” is an appropriate word where you are traveling. For instance, in China and India people are expected to do nice things for their families and each other. “Thank you” is considered unnecessary and even insulting.
I am sorry
You are human; you make mistakes. Chances are you will make a social faux paux at least once during your stay. Learn how to apologize. The most common mistake is being late to appointment or bumping into someone without meaning it. If anyone gives you a dirty look for any reason, saying “I’m sorry” in their own language might put a smile back on their face. And now you can continue traveling without worry that you offended someone in their home turf.
Please note that in some languages saying “excuse me (to get past)” is a different word than “I’m sorry.” You might want to learn this phrase as well, if you are visiting a big city, and traveling by train or subway.
Where is… ?
There have been very, very few times during my travels that I have been lost. In touristy places, there are often signs with arrows and maps all around you. If you have real time navigation technology available to you, then your phone is a great device for directions.
Though there have been a few times I needed to ask for directions, like at a Japanese rail station. You would think the rail line #20 comes after the number 19, but in the Tokyo station it happened to be on the other side of the very huge station. My travel companions and I could not find the rail line on the map, and we had to ask a conductor. Luckily, he spoke English and got us to the right place in time to catch our train.
Do not worry about learning directions such as: left, right, straight, etc. Honestly, you will not be able to hear or remember complex directions if told in a foreign language. The best way to get directions is to have map handy and get visual cues by way of pointing.
Usually when you are lost in a foreign country it is because you do not know where you are to begin with. Opps, you got off at the wrong train station or bus stop. Maybe you are facing the wrong direction, because you cannot easily read the signs in subway station or on a street. This is why pointing to a map and asking “where is…” is the best question you can ask. Once a local can show your location and direction on a map, then it is quite easy to take the next step and figure out where you are going.
Lots of travel books tell you to learn the phrase, “where is the bathroom?” Again, I have never really used this. It is an amazing thing, but city planners and architects all around the world generally put bathrooms in similar places that are easy to find. Signs for bathrooms are pretty universal. If you are in a hotel, train station or restaurant chances are you can find a bathroom on your own.
The better advice I have for you is to plan ahead. Go to the bathroom more often than you feel you need to, so that you are not caught by surprise in a place where a bathroom is not readily available. Also, if you know you are going where you might not find bathrooms easily, do not drink as much liquid. Maybe wait until you are back in your hotel room and then slam a bunch of water.
If you are getting food or going shopping, the price tags of your purchases should be evident. Your waiter will hand you a check, or the cash registrar will display your total bill. If these visual cues are not present, then you can make the international hand signal for “check please”. Hopefully, the person asking you for money can grab a pen and paper and write down the amount you need to pay. You can also bust out Google Translate if needed to make your transaction go smoothly.
The few places you may need to know the question “how much?” is before getting in a taxi or bus… or any time you are concern the fare or entrance fee is not visually present and maybe outrageous. You may also need this phrase in certain markets where bargaining is common place. If the price tags are not given then chances are there is a tourist price and a (much cheaper) locals only deal. You may not want to pay the first price you are given.
If you are going to ask how much, then you need to be able to understand the answer. This is why learning the numbers 1 through 10 is also important. Again, pen and paper go a long way here. You do not want to agree to paying 4,000 when you thought you were paying 400, etc.
I would like to order… Food & Drinks
You will need to order food and drink where ever you are going. Being able to order water, coffee, wine are my favorite phrases to learn. Learn the phrase for ordering, which is usually “I would like (to have)” or “may I have,” etc.
Learn the words for your favorite drinks. Definitely water; don’t forget to hydrate! Also, coffee… you’ll need caffeine to keep trekking. Then discover words for wine, beer, etc. You may want to familiarize yourself with local favorite drinks.
Next you want to learn words for local foods you are dying to try. Learning the words for beef, chicken, fish is helpful when you are trying to translate food at a market. If you are vegan or vegetarian you may need to ask if the food being served to you is as well.
Also, can you order food over the phone for room service? Another (not-so) fun story, I got really sick on my honeymoon. We were not able to go out for dinner as planned. I needed to order food over the phone. I ended up ordering a hamburger and pizza, because it was the easiest thing to say.
I am pleasantly surprised by how many times I used the word “cheers” traveling in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, drinking a beverage unique to the area. Sometimes I “cheers” with the locals. Sometimes I “cheers” with follow travelers. Sometimes I “cheers” with my own travel companions. Often using the word “cheers” is my favorite memory from the trip.
So learn the word for “cheers,” but also try to learn its meaning. Often it means “to your health.” Also learn the correct mannerisms. It it incredible rude to not look into everyone’s eyes as you are cheersing. Is it bad luck to pour your own drink? Is it good luck to let the drink pour over the rim of your glass? If you invite someone out to drink, does that mean you are picking up the tab?
The last word that is truly necessary to learn before traveling to a new country is “help me!” This is a word you hope to never use, but is so important in an emergency. You never know when you may need it.
I was in Barcelona, when a thief stole my wallet in the subway and ran away with it. There were police officers near me, but I was not able to yell for them to help me. Now I do not leave home without learning how to yell for help.
Practice before you go
If you are traveling with others, get together before the trip and practice these words. I recommend discussing your travel plans over a sit-down dinner and practice all of these phrases as the occasion to use them arrives.
Do you have travel phrases you think are essential? Feel free to leave a comment below. Please pass this article on to your fellow travelers!
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