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When traveling abroad, I often feel ignorant. Ignorant in that we expect tourists visiting English speaking countries to speak English, however 90% of the time don’t reciprocate by making an attempt to speak the local language when traveling through foreign countries ourselves.

Not expecting people to speak to you in English, and making at least an attempt to communicate in the language of the land wherever you go, is a sign of respect for both the locals and their culture. But language learning isn’t for everyone, and surely no-one in the world has mastered over 200 local dialects! So what is a traveler to do?

With some practice, anyone can learn a second language, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Even if you are just briefly passing through, learning a few words and phrases in the local language goes a long way for both respect and ease of travel.

Smartphone translation apps make travel easier than in the past, but when I travel I will also carry a small notebook in which I use to list phrases and notes about the places I am visiting. 

Traveling through Italy...notebook in hand!

Traveling through Italy…notebook in hand!

You may only be passing through a country in transit, but that’s the day you will find yourself stuck in a foreign airport wondering what to do next!

When compiling your list of phrases, remember to write them out phonetically. For instance writing ‘спасибо’ in Russian is absolutely no help if you cannot read Cryillic.  Instead write ‘spa-see-ba’ (Thankyou).  Those feeling particularly adventurous should consider writing out sentences in full.

Don’t be scared to try, or to ask a local for help with pronunciation.  Locals are much more impressed by those who make the attempt to speak their language than by those who don’t try at all.

Want to learn a second language? Berlitz.us is currently hosting a video contest, accepting video submissions from people saying why they want to learn a new language. The competition closes March 8 2014, and one person will be chosen to win a package worth $6,600.

Greetings & Small Talk

 

  • Hello/ Good Morning/ Good Evening / Good Night
  • How are you?
  • Fine, thanks. And you?
  • Please / Yes please.
  • Thank you / Thank you very much.
  • You’re Welcome
  • Goodbye / Bye / See you soon.
  • Yes
  • No
  • Excuse me.
  • I’m sorry / Sorry / Pardon Me
  • What is your name?
  • I’m… / My name is… / I am called…
  • Nice to meet you.
  • Where are you from?
  • I’m from…
  • How old are you?
  • I am… years old.
  • I (don’t) like…
We had no idea who these travelers were - but we connected anyway! Having a few phrases to maintain small talk is incredibly handy.

We had no idea who these travelers were – but we connected anyway! Having a few phrases to maintain small talk is incredibly handy.

Language Difficulties

 

  • Do you speak…?

  • I (don’t) understand.
  • I speak a little…
  • I (don’t) speak…
  • Could you please speak a little slower?
  • Could you write that down?
  • Could you repeat that?
  • How do you say…?
  • What does… mean?
  • What time is it?
  • It’s (six) o’clock.

Traveling to Japan in 2003 as a Year 9 Student. Many language difficulties were overcome!

Traveling to Japan in 2003 as a Year 9 Student. Many language difficulties were overcome!

Shopping & Money

  • How much is this?
  • I’m looking for…
  • I would like…
  • Can I pay by credit card?
  • Could I see this/that one?
  • Do you have this in small/large/medium?
  • Do you have anything cheaper?
  • It’s too expensive.
  • I’ll give you… for it.
  • Where can I exchange money?
It's always a good idea to know key phrases about money.

It’s always a good idea to know key phrases about money.

Transportation

  • A one-way/return ticket to… please.
  • Here’s my passport.
  • What time does the bus/train/plane/ferry from… arrive/depart?
  • Which platform/gate/terminal?
  • Is the bus/train/plane direct?
  • Do I have to change buses/trains?
  • Do I need a seat reservation?
  • Is this seat taken?
  • When is the next train/bus/minibus/ferry to…?
  • Could you call me a taxi?
  • I’d like to go to…
  • Can you let me know when to get off?
Train travel overseas.

Train travel overseas.

Directions

 

  • How do I get to…?
  • It’s on the left/on the right/straight ahead/at the corner.
  • How far is…?
  • Where is the closest bank/post office/exchange office?
  • Where can I find tourist information?
  • Do you have a map?
  • Can you show me that on the map?
  • Where is the (Australian) embassy/consulate?

 

Don't hide behind your guide book when asking for directions!

Don’t hide behind your guide book when asking for directions!

Eating & Drinking

 

  • Can you recommend a good restaurant?
  • Can we have a non smoking table?
  • There are two/three/four of us.
  • What would you recommend?
  • What are some local specialties?
  • Could I see the menu, please?
  • A beer/coffee/tea, please.
  • Could I get the bill, please. / The check, please.
  • I’m allergic to…
  • That was delicious!
  • This isn’t what I ordered.
  • Can I buy you a drink?
  • Let’s have another!
Eating out in France. Je vais commander les cuisses de grenouilles s'il vous plaît. (I w

Eating out in France. Je vais commander les cuisses de grenouilles s’il vous plaît. (I will order the frogs legs please).

Sightseeing

 

  • Are there guided tours?
  • What is the entrance fee?
  • What is that building?
  • Is it open on Sundays?
  • What’s on at the cinema/theatre/opera tonight?
  • That’s a beautiful church/cathedral/building.
  • What is there to see around here?

Accommodations

 

  • What is an inexpensive hotel you can recommend?
  • I have a reservation.
  • Do you have any rooms?
  • Could I see the room?
  • I’d like to stay for… nights.
  • Does that include breakfast?
  • Is there anywhere I can leave luggage?
  • When do I have to check out?
  • The … in my room doesn’t work.
  • Could I get a different room?
  • Is there a restaurant here?
Accom

Knowing a few basic accommodation phrases increases your ease of travel

Difficult Situations & Emergencies

  • Help! / Can you help me?
  • Please come with me – it is an emergency/very urgent.
  • I’ve lost (my keys).
  • I need a doctor/dentist/police officer.
  • Is there pharmacy nearby?
  • Can I use your phone?
  • Call the police/ambulance!
  • Leave me alone!
Learning a second language! Studying Spanish in Costa Rica.

Learning a second language! Studying Spanish in Costa Rica.

Much of this list of phrases was compiled from 101 Survival Phrases to Master in Any Language by Ryan O’Rourke of Treksplorer. 

 About Megan Claire

Megan is an Australian Journalist who has been travelling and blogging around the world for the last 7 years to inspire others to embark on their own worldwide adventure!  Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.

Follow their journey on FacebookGoogle+ and Twitter.

    32 Comments

  1. There is nothing you can do that will increase the joy of travel more than learning at least the basic phrases in every country you travel to. Not only will you enjoy your stay more, but (IMHO) it is a gesture of respect to the people whom you are visiting to learn those basics.

    Don’t be an “ugly” tourist! Learn to say Thanks and Hello/Goodbye before you even get on the plane.

    JR
    JR_justJR recently posted…The Tower of BabbleMy Profile

    • Definitely – agree with you 100%. Even something as simple as yes, hello and please or thankyou go a long way as a sign of respect for the locals and the local culture.

      We were traveling through France and even though our French was absolutely horrible they still appreciated the fact that we were trying 🙂
      Megan Claire recently posted…Discover East Africa With Pole Pole SafarisMy Profile

  2. ive traveled to so many places where english is completely unspoken (post soviet countries) and it is imperative to have a little russian knowledge, or at least be able to read cyrillic. russian is the default language in most of these countries. for me, the most crucial keywords are:

    thanks
    excuse me/sorry (ugh…has to be the american in me saying sorry/excuse me after everything)
    hello/goodbye
    one,two,three,four,five (usually for buying train tickets or metro tickets)
    beer
    toilet
    yes/no

    aside from those, ive managed pretty well in russian speaking countries not knowing a lot of the language due to its difficulty (on the other hand, i can read a lot of russian, so i dont have to stress about not reading menus or signs or city names at the train station)! most people are impressed or excited when you try their language, but extremely understanding if you are unable to communicate more thoroughly, mainly because they are not used to tourism in those parts and are just impressed someone has traveled there!

    i am very thankful for apps helping me out when i have needed it in certain situations (i always get a SIM card in these countries so that i have translation apps available to me). i also love tools like KLM’s learn the language on the plane entertainment option 🙂

    great post! 🙂
    Megan recently posted…Bocas del Toro’s Starfish BeachMy Profile

  3. Don’t worry, I’m Australian and also say sorry for everything – I’m always told off for it too!!

    Completely agree with you – we found ourselves a little stuck in Eastern Europe in places where they spoke no English, not even a little, so we had to learn pretty quickly how to get by in the local language. That and sign language for the rest!

    I had never heard of KLM’s learn the language option on the plane – this is such a great idea! I wonder why more airlines don’t do it. We will definitely keep a better eye on the entertainment units from now on.

    I’m impressed you can speak Russian – even if only enough to get by – we’ll have to hit you up to be our Russian guide when we get to that side of the world!!
    Megan Claire recently posted…Photographs From My Destination WeddingMy Profile

    • Singapore Airlines also has a ‘learn Chinese’ inflight on the IFE. It starts with basics like some numbers and Hello/Goodbye, but jumps pretty quickly to some outrageously complex stuff. Still good for basics though.

      Would be great if something like that was standard on all International flights. I know I could have used some training in Kiwi & Oz translations!

      JR
      JR_justJR recently posted…Swimming with SharksMy Profile

    • I can help you out on some Kiwi and Oz translations 😀 Lol I’ve actually been thinking recently about publishing a post containing an Australian slang dictionary – it’s a whole different string of English in the land down under!!
      Megan Claire recently posted…Words And Phrases To Know In Every LanguageMy Profile

  4. Your travel blog is my favorite! It’s like you know how ignorant I feel out and about. You got great stories I look forward to your next post!

    Henry,

    P.S.
    Henry Ranger recently posted…Boyah Chapter 2My Profile

  5. Being an overland tour leader specializing in long haul trips (London to Sydney, London to Cape Town) I could never devote enough time to lean so many phrases in the local language of the many countries we passed through. I whittled the list down to the essentials…
    Hello/Goodbye
    Please/Thank you
    Yes/No
    How much is three big beers please?

    Then it was all about a big smile and sign language/charades 🙂
    Kirsty McGregor recently posted…FREE eBook – ‘Overlanding: How, What, Where & Who With…?’My Profile

    • As it turns out, how to ask for beer has been a common response I received after posting this article on social media. Perhaps I was wrong to not include it as an essential phrase lol.

      I also personally believe in the power of a big smile and language charades – you’re definitely onto something there!

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Megan Claire recently posted…Discover East Africa With Pole Pole SafarisMy Profile

    • Definitely a good idea to have a few of these if you are a solo traveler. I’m lucky that my husband speaks Spanish fluently, so we’re set for Central and South America this coming May! Will have to put these to use elsewhere though when Spanish won’t save us!
      Megan Claire recently posted…How To Spend 5 Days in Sydney, AustraliaMy Profile

  6. Nice list Megan! I aim to learn a few of these every country I visit. On top of not being ignorant it makes things easier and you don’t feel like a dick! I was just in Sochi and was amazed by people (mostly Americans) expecting locals to know English just bc it was the Olympics. Made me sick.

    I will share this out of my shared hatred for those ignorant people!

    Shaun
    http://www.thislifeintrips.com
    Shaun recently posted…Instagramming Sochi 2014My Profile

    • Thanks Shaun! Glad you found it useful 🙂 How amazing though to have just been in Sochi – I can imagine it would have been phenomenal.

      I can also imagine though that ignorance would be on display like nothing we’ve ever seen before – I don’t think this Olympics went any further to ushering peace between the two nations. Sad really.
      Megan Claire recently posted…How To Spend 5 Days in Sydney, AustraliaMy Profile

  7. This a great list. I myself never really learn the language before I go but pick up very quickly even when I was in Iran I have learned all the numbers reading, writing and speaking the first day 🙂
    Marysia @ My Travel Affairs recently posted…Friday Lens Affair #58My Profile

    • Wow I’m impressed! It takes me a few days of studying to pick up something new and remember knowledge – very jealous of those photographic memories!!
      Megan Claire recently posted…Tunisia – Where Shopping is a Sport. My Profile

  8. Great list–I agree, you should always make an effort and try to communicate in the local language. I always learn some phrases and words before I go, but I’m horrible with the pronunciation part!
    Jenna recently posted…Snorkeling at Alligator Reef in the Florida KeysMy Profile

  9. I totally agree with you on this, that it’s important to learn a few key phrases in other languages– though if I were to memorize everything listed above, I’d have a lot to learn!
    Beth recently posted…Malaysia is for Foodies!My Profile

  10. If only I knew to learn how to speak these basic terms before I first started traveling it would have made all the difference in the world for me! lol Needless to say, I totally agree and have picked up some pretty cool ways to speak from all over the world (as I’m sure you have too)! 😉
    Ron | Active Planet Travels recently posted…The World Peace Pagoda in Pokhara, NepalMy Profile

    • I’m with you 100% on that!! I got to Finland – the first non English speaking country I traveled through solo – and had completely overlooked the fact that I should probably know one or two phrases in Finnish – it hit me as soon as I got off the plane and couldn’t find the baggage claim lol!
      Megan Claire recently posted…How To Spend 5 Days in Sydney, AustraliaMy Profile

  11. Mary and I keep talking about learning a language, especially because we constantly travel to Spanish-speaking countries. But right now we have a basic rudimentary knowledge at best of French, and even less of anything else. It’s pathetic. Maybe we should make a list of all these phrases in the languages of the places we travel most often…
    Bret @ Green Global Travel recently posted…Are Backpackers Destroying the World? Q&A With Gringo Trails Director Pegi VailMy Profile

    • Thats an awesome place to start – we’re about to do the same; traveling through Central and South America in May so we’re starting with a list of Spanish and French phrases, and then will throw in the most essential for other local languages.

      Really trying to make an effort this trip to make up for my sad lack of effort in previous travels!!
      Megan Claire recently posted…Dive Into The Blue World Of Whales And Dolphins. Volunteer In Ischia. My Profile

  12. Great list! Agree that many English speakers take it for granted that everyone will speak English. Even learning a few words will endear you to locals and show your respect for their country. Admit don’t always learn a few words but should make an effort to.
    The Travel Sisters recently posted…Hugging a Panda in Chengdu, China!My Profile

  13. Very useful list, nice work! I like being able to speak at least a little with local people where I travel – even if my pronunciation makes them fall down laughing, it’s an icebreaker!

    Noting down these phrases is a good idea, because when I started travelling I would try to do at least a little bit of an introductory course to the language of my destination, but language courses can take time to get to the useful phrases, and are intended more for making you a fluent speaker in the long-term, rather than just giving you the practical essentials of getting around a country. So translating these phrases instead is definitely the way to go!

    And yes, requesting a beer is the one I would add as well. But then again, I’m a beer girl through and through and therefore a little biased.
    Joanna Kalafatis recently posted…10 Infuriating Things About DisneylandMy Profile

    • Thanks Joanna! Horrible pronunciation is most certainly an ice-breaker…had a lot of those experiences in the past!!

      Language courses are definitely a great idea if you’re focusing on only one country – we did a 2 week Spanish course before volunteering in Costa Rica and it did really help. As you mentioned, they’re time consuming though if you’re just jumping around Europe on a whirlwind trip, probably better to go for translation of the best phrases 🙂

      I’ll buy you a beer if we ever cross paths!
      Megan Claire recently posted…International Intoxication: Advice On Getting Drunk AbroadMy Profile

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