How can a traveler connect with locals — or even get themselves fed — without spending hours learning languages? Here’s a five-step plan that makes it manageable.
How do you travel to countries where you don’t know the language? It’s easier than you think. I have a list of 23 words and phrases I try to learn, and those phrases have helped me survive in more than 25 countries now.
You can get by for a few days or a week in a tourist destination without any language skills at all. Hotels that you find on English-language websites will have English-speaking staff, and restaurants in touristy areas will usually have either English or picture menus, and store owners in tourist areas will either speak a little English or will use a handheld calculator to show you the prices of things.
But if you’re staying longer, learning a few words and phrases will enhance your travel experience tremendously. This article gives you an overview of my approach, but you’ll find my complete list of 23 words and phrases, in order of importance, at this link.
1) Start with Greetings and Gratitude
All the pointing and grunting you’ll be doing will seem much more civilized if you can sandwich it between a cheerful “Good morning!” a polite “please,” and a heartfelt “Thank you.” These are the first words to learn, and the ones you should have solidly in your memory. If you’re only visiting a country for a day or two, you can add the word “bathroom” and call it a day.
2) Add Essential Menu Words
Learn the words for “chicken,” “rice,” and “water.” Those are available everywhere and will keep you alive. Also learn the words for anything you feel you personally can’t live without, like coffee or beer.
“What do you recommend?” will lead you to many happy experiences; it’s the best phrase in your whole restaurant arsenal. Waiters and waitresses know which dishes people like, and they enjoy being asked their opinion. The best answer I ever got was from a waiter in Italy who recommended “Pane, amore e fantasia” — bread, love and fantasy — but after a good laugh he got serious and brought me the best dinner I ever had. Tip: open your world without leaving home by using “What do you recommend?” at the restaurants in your home town.
3) Point & Shoot Shopping
Once you’re sure you can get fed, shift your attention to the phrases you’ll need for shopping. “One of those, please” “good/OK” and “How much is it?” will get the job done, along with lots of pointing and smiling and a bit of charades.
Tip: Tuck this “pointing dictionary” in your bag. Its astounding number of simple pictures help you ask for everything from a bathroom to a hamburger to a doctor without any language skills at all.
4) Add Some Finesse
Ready for more? Add some niceties. “I’m sorry” and “excuse me” are endlessly useful when you’re a bumbling foreigner. Asking “Do you speak English” in the local language is much more polite than just babbling at people in a strange tongue and hoping they’ll answer. Tip: If you like to photograph people, add “Permission?” to your list.
5) What To Leave Out
Many “survival phrase” lists overwhelm you with things you don’t need. “Where is the bus station?” is absolutely useless if you’re not going to understand the stream of words you’ll get in response. Learning “I don’t speak Indonesian” is a waste of your brain cells; that fact is going to be painfully obvious to anyone you meet. “I don’t understand” is so easily conveyed with a Scooby-Doo noise and a facial expression, it isn’t worth memorizing.
You don’t have to form complete sentences to be polite. Pointing toward the back of the restaurant and asking “Bathroom?” will get you the information you need. Keep it simple.
Don’t bother with goodbyes. A smile and wave will do the trick. You’ll probably pick it up on the fly anyway.
You don’t need to know how to say “you’re welcome” when you’ll be the one asking for help all the time.
6) Make Flash Cards
Flash cards are the best way to memorize vocabulary words. Look up the words you want using lists of survival phrases, and verify the accuracy and pronunciation with Google Translate. Click the tiny speaker symbol next to the translation to hear it pronounced. Make flashcards for yourself, either physically or with an app. Chegg is a great flashcard app, and it’s free. Go over the words you want to learn several times a day.
You probably won’t feel comfortable speaking when you first arrive. That’s OK. Practice finding the word you want in your memory while you’re in a real-life situation, even if you’re too shy to say it out loud. You’ll feel better once you’ve heard other people speak the words, and soon you’ll find yourself dropping your new vocabulary here and there.
If you’ll be staying in one place for a while, you’ll find your vocabulary expanding naturally. You’ll see words on signs and menus, and you’ll be looking up new vocabulary words every time you need to run an errand or want to try something new at a restaurant.
For more in-depth language study, I really enjoy Babbel.com. It doesn’t offer a full range of languages yet, but important languages like Spanish, French and German are there, along with less common choices like Indonesian. Babbel is fun, fast and reasonably priced.
See “Learn These 23 Words Before You Travel” for my list of essential travel phrases in order of importance.