I wish I spoke ten languages but my range is more remedial. I often know just enough to greet people, order wine, find the bathroom, and give a friendly please and thank you. Regardless, before every trip, I familiarize myself with the general sound and tone of the language by watching a movie or two with sub-titles. And, to show respect to my host country, I work to commit some important key words and phrases to memory to immerse as best I can into the day-to-day of my destination.
If it’s your first trip or your fifth, it’s always a lot of fun to engage with locals in their mother-tongue, and it’s always welcomed by locals if you try. Here is a list of some basics to conquer.
At a Minimum
These are a few words and phrases that every good traveler should work to learn at a minimum.
Please and Thank You
These two might be the most important in this list to establish yourself as a gracious visitor. You will find yourself saying these over and over — when you’re seated at a restaurant or theater, when you maneuver around a city, and when you pay or receive a meal. You will even say them when you literally don’t know what else to say, and it will typically be met with a helpful smile.
Hello and Goodbye
In many countries, staff will greet you at a restaurant or hotel or shop with a good morning or good evening. These are key words to get familiar with and practice saying before your trip, as they’ll go a long way in building a connection with those you interact with.
Help or Police
Not words you want to have to use, but being able to say or yell them instinctively will be very helpful in case you do need them.
Yes and No
Last but not least, yes and no will come in handy wherever you go. These are often the easiest to learn and remember.
Nice to Haves
These words and phrases are a little trickier, but really come in handy to get around a foreign city or order things in shops or restaurants.
Memorizing the numbers one through ten can help you request tickets or seats at a restaurant. At a bakery, you can order one of those and three of those with words and pointing. Plus, they’re fun to rattle off in your head on the flight over.
Entry and Exit
Just visually knowing the words for enter or entry and exit will help you read signage and get around while sightseeing and on public transportation.
There is of course the universal symbol of raising your hand in the air and pretending to sign your name for check please. But even more helpful is being able to say it aloud to help move things along. This is particularly useful in countries that don’t put as much rush on this sort of thing as they do in the USA.
Where’s the Bathroom
Maybe this should be in the “at a minimum” section above. Knowing the word for bathroom or toilet, and being able to inquire about it will be beyond important at that critical moment when you’re out wandering unknown streets and desperation sets in.
Familiarizing yourself with the words for your favorite food and drinks will be helpful when you trying to quickly order in a bustling café or confronted with a confusing menu. Words like coffee (and knowing what sort of coffee you are ordering), water (with and without “gas”), light beer, and red wine or white wine is super helpful. If you have any allergies or aversions, being able to communicate gluten free or no mushrooms will be pivotal. And knowing the words for types of meat will also help the vegetarian or non-adventurous eater avoid beef, pork, tongue or brain. Not kidding, it’s helpful.
How to Study Up
The best places to look up these key words and phrases is online with a simple Google search of “How to say basic words in Italian” or whatever language you might need to get familiar with. I also often travel old school with a little language paperback book that I can easily reference when needed. Here are a few series that I have found useful (all available in many language options).
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