There’s no way around it: traveling to countries where you don’t speak the language can be intimidating. But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid certain regions because you’re not fluent in Mandarin or conversant in Turkish.
A little goes a long way, so if you take the time to learn a few key phrases in the native tongue of your destination, you’ll make travel a little easier on yourself and maybe earn some brownie points with the locals in the process.
But where to begin? Well, we checked with some of our veteran travelers to see what phrases they use the most on the road!
Sure, it seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many folks travel without learning the greeting of their host country. In most languages, it’s not more than 2 syllables–your brain can handle it.
Same goes for farewells. Keep in mind that most cultures have more than one phrase for greetings and goodbyes; if you’re up for the challenge, learn a couple!
How a culture expresses thanks can be a fascinating insight into its thinking. For example, in Indonesian, “Terima kasih” (“thank you”) is literally, “accept love.” Cool!
Nobody’s perfect. Plus, what are you going to say if you accidentally elbow someone in the face on a jam-packed bus?
Where is the bathroom?
Where is…can be one of the most helpful phrases you learn in any language. “The bathroom” happens to be one of those, too!
Where is the train station?
You wouldn’t even have to learn a whole new phrase–if you’ve already learned the one above, all you need to learn is “train station”! Piece of cake.
Along the lines of “sorry,” but also helpful to get someone’s attention politely.
Counting from one to twenty.
Okay, I know I cheated and this isn’t a ‘phrase,’ so to speak. But numbers are very useful so you can understand prices, order tickets and more. If you don’t think you can make it to 20, it’s still helpful to get to 10.
Great to figure out how much those Italian boots will set you back, or what the tuk-tuk ride will cost.
I’m not interested or Leave me alone.
This phrase can come in handy in the marketplace if vendors get aggressive, or at the bar if a suitor does.
Hopefully you won’t need to use this or any variation of it, but it is always good to be prepared.
Some specific cases…
Beautiful/handsome. Micki Kosman, from The Barefood Nomad, said, “I usually use this for remarking on people’s babies and small kids- it always brings a smile to the parents’ faces. We travel with our two kids, so it’s nice to be able to break the ice with other parents.” Those words are also very handy when wanting to compliment other people or places, too!
A tip: be sure to check on vocabulary related to frequent health issues that may come up at your destination. For example, Oneika the Traveller found it useful to know the Spanish word for altitude sickness in Peru–a common problem at 3,500 meters!
Bethany from Beers & Beans learned how to say “Is there a charge for sitting?” because most cafes in Europe have different prices depending on whether you get table service or stand at the bar.
Learning a new language is one of the many awesome benefits of traveling. Even with these basic phrases, you can communicate quite a lot! And don’t forget: gestures go a long way.