I often feel ignorant when traveling abroad. Ignorant in that we expect tourists visiting English speaking countries to speak English, however 90% of the time don’t reciprocate attempting to speak local languages when traveling 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?
Anyone can learn a second language with practice, but 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.
Words And Phrases To Know In Every Language
Greetings & Small Talk to Know in Every Language
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
Shopping & Money Phrases
- 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?
- 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?
Asking For Directions in Every Language
- 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?
Eating & Drinking Words to Know in Every Language
- 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!
Sightseeing Phrases to Know in Every Language
- 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?
- 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?
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!
Tips When Compiling Your List of Phrases
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 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.
WHICH LANGUAGE ARE YOU LEARNING? CLICK TO TRY A FREE TRIAL!
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.
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 :)
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:
excuse me/sorry (ugh…has to be the american in me saying sorry/excuse me after everything)
one,two,three,four,five (usually for buying train tickets or metro tickets)
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! :)
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!!
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!
I can help you out on some Kiwi and Oz translations :D 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!!
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!
Thankyou Henry! I’m glad you like the site, and glad to have you here :)
Have a wonderful weekend! Safe travels.
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…
How much is three big beers please?
Then it was all about a big smile and sign language/charades :-)
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!
Thanks for the helpful phrases! I particularly like the “Difficult Situations” section as I am travelling alone.
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!
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!
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.
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 :)
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!!
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!
I’ve found though that people always laugh at horrible pronunciation – it’s almost a really great way to break the ice!!
Smart post, Megan!
Thanks Kerry! Glad you found it useful!
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!
I do wish I had been more proactive as a child lol they say its easier to learn and retain languages at a younger age :D!
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)! ;-)
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!
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…
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!!
I’ve often been amazed at what effect just two phrases in the local language can have. Hello sets the tone (you bothered to learn at least that), while Thank you typically elicits a smile (you exceeded expectations). The rest is Globish and gestures.
Totally agree with you – the middle is always a fun game of sign language/charades which adds a bit of fun into everyone’s day!
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.
I’m trying to make more of an effort as well. We’re traveling through South America next though and my husband speaks Spanish so I’ve gotten a bit lazy recently letting him do all of the talking :D
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.
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!
This article has given me as well as for others the importance of how, when, what, why and which languages/signs/knowledge to speak/hear/listen for every country we travel. Even thou English is a worldwide language as well as funny, but knowing a few other languages helps to increase our capacity of learning even thou if a person is young/old.
Great article!!! Hope to see more!!!
Thanks for reading Anson, so glad the post was helpful for you! Yes English is widely spoken around the world these days, but I have found that there are still places around the world where you’ll visit and they don’t speak a word. Even for parts of the world who do speak English, making the effort definitely increases our capacity for learning, and for more immersive experiences on the ground :)
Very impressive and useful. I would like to translate this into every language I can speak.
So glad it was helpful!
you wrote a wonderful article and list!
Could you please list, in rank-order, the cornerstone languages based to their pervasiveness worldwide?
For example, by learning Russian, a vast majority of Easter European countries would be covered. With Spanish, most South American countries would be covered. Actually, though, many Western European countries are multilingual; therefore, Spanish gets one far there, also. Chinese would cover the biggest population. Etc.
Such a list would be most helpful for global nomads — a growing lifestyle.
Myself, I speak Chamorro (Western Pacific islands), Tagalog, Thai and German. Have also studied Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. But still not enough.
Thanks in advance
Hi Dan, thanks for reading, and thank you for the thoughtful comment, I’m so glad the post was helpful for you!
I agree, I’ve thought about which langages would be the most beneficial, re which unlock the most access to the world a lot, though haven’t yet put the time into researching an accurate list. French, Spanish, and German would definitely be up there. Will let you know in future if we’re able to write this blog post, I agre, it would be a good one!