The Instagram feeds of travellers suggest that life on the road is all picture-perfect landscapes, perfectly pedicured toes in the sand, glittering infinity pools and colourful scoops of ice cream. While all of that can be true, there’s a specific struggle that no social media post can quite capture – language barriers. From the moment you step off the plane in a foreign country, you are met with unknown languages and words you’ve never heard. And, while learning the language of your destination country before your visit is obviously ideal, it’s definitely not realistic for most of us. But before you let the stress of navigating a foreign language stop you from exploring a new and exciting country, consider a few key phrases to learn in the local language before you travel.
Knowing a few key phrases will not only make you feel more confident as a visitor to a foreign country, but it will also help you come across as more respectful, approachable, and, in some situations, it could even save you from a potentially hazardous situation.
13 Key Phrases To Know In The Local Language Before You Travel
1. The Basics – Hello, Goodbye, Yes, No, Thank You, Please
These are the obvious words to learn before you travel anywhere. If nothing else, learn the basic greetings in your destination country. There is no better way to warm up a local than a friendly smile and a “hello” in the local language.
2. Excuse Me / I’m Sorry
Arguably the most important thing to learn after basic greetings is how to say excuse me or sorry. Whether you bump into somebody in a crowded market or need to get a waiter’s attention, these key phrases are invaluable.
3. How Are You? And Responses
Asking someone how they are is a universal sign of respect. And, because in most cultures they will ask you how you are in return, you should probably know a few ways to respond to the question, or at least to say that you’re doing well. (Even if you are super lost, and you only have one shoe, and your last meal is not agreeing with you, and your hostel key has disappeared. I’m fine, thanks, how are you!?)
4. My Name Is…
Being able to introduce yourself is crucial in another language. Bonus points if you also learn how to ask somebody what their name is.
5. I Am From…
Locals are often curious about where you come from. Being able to tell them the city and the country that you come from will help to create conversation. I always like to have a few photos from home handy on my iPhone too, so I can show them what my city and country are like if they have never been there themselves.
6. I Would Like…
This one is helpful when ordering in restaurants, communicating with hotel staff, and shopping. And it’s certainly more polite than just barking out your desired menu item, toiletry or souvenir.
7. A Way to Politely Decline (No Thank You, Maybe Another Time, etc.)
“Lain Kali” became my absolute favourite phrase when I was in Bali, because it is a way to politely decline advances of people trying to sell you stuff in the streets. Literally translated, it means “other time”, so when someone would approach us saying “You want a taxi? You want to buy a fan? You want a massage?” we would just say “Lain Kali”, and they would smile and back off. Sometimes they’d even laugh and say “Lain Kali” back to us. It was much kinder than just saying “NO”, and it was very much appreciated by the locals.
8. Do You Speak English / I Do Not Speak ___.
This one is important simply because, sometimes, when you begin speaking to someone in their native language, even if it’s just a few words, they get very excited and assume that you are fluent in the local language. You need to have a way to tell them that no, actually, you do not speak Cantonese, you are just trying to be a good and polite traveller and could you please find somebody who speaks english to help me find my hotel?
9. Where Is The Bathroom?
Lord knows that I don’t need to tell you why this one is important when traveling to a foreign country. This is something I wish I had known when I visited Mexico for the first time. #TMI
10. I Do Not Understand.
Just a simple way of telling a local that you have no idea what they are saying. Usually followed by an awkward game of charades.
11. How Much Does This Cost?
Good for trips when you plan to be doing a lot of shopping, especially in markets. It’s also helpful to know how to count from 1-10, but if that’s too crazy for you, I found a pen and paper works great, too.
12. Anything To Describe Your Unique Situation (Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, Allergies, Physical Disabilities, etc.)
Because trying to act out “Vegetarian” via charades is never fun. Fun fact about me: I have something called chronic hiccup. Yes, chronic hiccup is a thing, but unfortunately they sometimes sound more like a weird sneeze or a yelping noise. When I was in Madagascar, I tried (and failed) to learn the word for hiccup, so I could put locals at ease when they looked at me in horror as what sounded like a small dog being stepped on escaped from my mouth.
13. I Need Help.
This one is crucial. You absolutely must know how to ask for help, or even just say “HELP” in the local language. Whether you’re simply lost or in real actual danger, a foreigner screaming “HELP!” in the middle of the street is bound to get some attention. And, even if you can’t say much more than “help”, chances are, someone who notices you are in distress is going to find someone who is able to communicate with you.
So, there you have it. 13 key phrases to learn in the local language before your next trip. They can be a lot to remember, so at the very least, have them jotted down on a piece of paper or in your phone so you can recall them quickly if you need to. Locals will thank you – and you won’t look like an ignorant tourist.
Want to know more? Check out the post I wrote about handling language barriers while traveling.
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Are there any other phrases that you try to learn before visiting another country?
Do you have any good stories about language barriers?