The amount of language that you really need to travel easily and smoothly is incredibly minuscule. Even if you only know 100 words of a local language it is possible to communicate most things that you need, wish to know, and get to where you want to go — if they are the hundred right words.
Language courses and phrase books often stuff their lessons and volumes right off the bat with advanced sentences and abstract topics that are pretty useless for the average traveler who just wants to get the rawest language skills ASAP in order to navigate a country. There are a few things travelers should learn how to say in the local language of any country they enter, and the faster they do this the better.
When taking the first tentative steps into a new foreign language I’ve found that using the least amount of words to communicate what you want to say is generally better, as the more words you use the higher the chance that you’re going to mispronounce them and end up speaking gibberish. So when you’re at level zero with a foreign language, less is best: master the pronunciation of a small set of absolutely necessary words first, combine them with pantomime or whatever you need to do to get your point across, then build a more complex vocabulary as you go.
The following is a list of the the phrases that I learn first when entering a country where I don’t know the dominant language. Using them “as is” may not always leave you looking linguistically graceful, but they will get your point across far better than the guy going aournd trying to make everyone speak English. It’s better to talk like a caveman and be understood than to be completely verbally incomprehensible.
Yes and no
Don’t rely on body language here, as sometimes this changes between cultures, and the degree to which it’s honored varies — especially if someone is trying to pressure you into buying or doing something. Just learn how to say these two words and use them confidently. It’s amazing what a sternly spoken “no” in the local lingo can do for you on the road.
Any person who travels to a foreign country and can’t say yes and no in the local language within a day should have their passport revoked.
How much money?
It is amazing how many times during the course of a day of travel you find yourself purchasing things. It’s sometimes my impression that world travel is little more than an exercise in global consumerism. “How much does it cost?” is perhaps the most uttered phrase of the modern traveler. Therefore, learning how to ask the price of something is absolutely pertinent.
Additional words and phrases to learn for commerce:
I will give you ___ dollars/ Euro/ pesos etc . . .
While you can always just break out a little notebook and have the person you’re trying to communicate with write down numbers, it’s always better to just learn how to say and understand them. It’s amazing to me how many people spend weeks or even months in a country without knowing its number words. To put it bluntly, when you can’t understand the price that a vendor or service provider states, can’t say how many or how much of something you want to buy, or the time your train or bus departs etc . . . you’re flying blind through a country. Knowing how to count makes living and traveling in a country WAY easier.
Understanding time words when traveling is clutch. You have to understand what time your bus leaves, what time your tour begins, when the hostel is going to close the doors for the night, what time the subway stops running etc . . . Not understanding or being able to say time words can lead to many needless misunderstandings when on the road. Again, you can have people just write times down on a pad of paper or something, but doing this over and over again is going to be far more complicated than just sitting down one day and learning a language’s time words.
Words to know for talking about time:
O’clock, or the local equivalent
Quarter to/ from
What time is it?
At what time?
What time does ___ it leave?
What time does ___ arrive?
I want/ need
Being able to express your wants and needs is essential to travel in any country. This is a basic sentence structure that you will use every day and fill in with more and more nouns as time goes on. This is also an essential phrase for ordering food, as even if you don’t know how to say the name of the dish you want you can point to it in a menu (or go into the kitchen) and say, “I want [point].” Combining this phrase with the words “this” and “that” will make you that much more linguistically able.
Nouns to combine with I want/ I need:
Food (learn the names of the food you want as you go).
If you’re traveling you need to be able to ask for and understand directions. Don’t rely on maps here, as it’s amazing how many people in the world simply can’t use them. When you land in a country where you don’t know the language soak up as many direction words as fast as you can.
Where is it?
I want to go to the ___
How far away?
Train/ bus station/ airport.
How do I go there?
Block (as in a city block).
I’m a pretty curious person, and when I see something interesting I go and check it out. This often involves going into houses, businesses, workshops etc . . . Being able to ask permission to enter at the door is often essential.
Knowing how to ask permission is key when traveling. Getting permission or finding out if it’s OK for you to do or see certain things or to go to particular places will get you a whole other level of access when poking around a country. This is also a good term to know how to use as you figure out the rules of a culture.
While being able to say what you like and don’t like won’t get you from point A to point B, get you on the right bus, or help you find a room, but it is surely helpful when a new acquaintance drops a freshly grizzled fish head onto your plate and expects you to eat it. To the contrary, being able to communicate that you do like something is a fast track to getting what you want. Also, the phrases “I like” and”I don’t like” are key ingredients to having basic conversation.
This is another super helpful verb to know in whatever language you’re faced with on the road. Being able to say and understand the following phrases saves a lot of communication frustrations:
Whenever you buy something from a store or someone helps you out, it just feels right to say thank you. Not knowing this phrase feels awkward, so just learn it.
Leave me alone/ go away
Yeah, it may be rude, but that’s the point. Knowing how to tell people to scram in no uncertain terms is unfortunately a necessary part of travel. Hawkers, touts, drug dealers, hustlers, con artists, and prostitutes will hone in on you as you travel through the world, and they can sometimes be so invasive and persistent in some places that being unable to get rid of them quickly could truly damper the experience you could otherwise be having.
In point, if you don’t learn how to tell someone to piss off in their own tongue there is a good chance that you will come to regret this lack of knowledge pretty fast. In the tourist areas of China, if someone begins bothering me I look at them and say in Mandarin, “You’re very annoying, please go away.” It works as well as hitting them in the face with a brick. They often gasp in disbelief that I know how to say something like that, get as embarrassed as they should be, and scram.
We don’t live in a perfect, completely friendly and hospitable world, and being able to verbally defend yourself is one of the first things that anyone should learn in any language.
When you’re starting from level zero with the dominant language of the country you’re standing in, being able to use the above phrases will make life vastly easier and give you a longer leash out of the tourist bubble.
I don’t include greetings in the above list for a reason: I simply don’t feel as if they’re the most important things to learn first in a foreign language. In point, having “Hello, how are you? I am fine. I am from America. I am very pleased to meet you,” being the only things you can say in a language is damn near useless. Greetings may get you smiles, but that’s about it.
The words and phrases I outline above are those I learn first in any language, and then I move into more advanced territory the more time I spend in the country or region this language is used in. As for pronunciation, I sit down with some locals — the people working in hostels, hotels, or cafes usually do the trick — and I practice my word list until I can say everything intelligibly. Then I go out and give it go and make adjustments based on trial and error.
While some countries can be traveled speaking only English this is not the rule of the planet. Sure, it’s easy to find English speakers in Northern Europe, on the backpacker trails, or the tourist ghettos of the planet, but that’s about as far as this language will take you.
It may seem difficult to learn the basics of a foreign language at first, but, believe me, it’s far easier than the alternative. To be honest, it is easier to just learn the basics of Mandarin than it is to try to find an English speaker in China every time you need something. It is easier to just learn how to order food and haggle over prices in Arabic than it is to play charades a dozen times per day as you travel through the Middle East. It is easier to learn the rudiments of speaking and reading Japanese than it is trying to force the people of Japan to understand your native tongue. It is just easier to learn what you need to know of the language of the country you’re traveling in than it is to constantly struggle with communication.
A half hour to an hour of study per day for a few weeks is often enough to give you enough linguistic power to travel through just about any country. The amount of words and phrases that you need to know to get what you need and want just about anywhere are extremely minimal; it’s far easier just learn them.