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Your Travels Will Be So Much Better With These 12 Phrases

When in Rome...try speaking Italian.

Those who speak English as their first language enjoy the distinct benefit of its function as a lingua franca across many communities and cultures, especially in tourism. It can, therefore, be tempting for travelers to forego learning any of the local languages, especially in countries where English is commonly understood.

These days, translation apps make it possible to hold more complex (albeit halted) conversations in other languages, regardless of comprehension. On top of that, speaking in an unfamiliar language can be intimidating, and many people are deterred by a fear of making mistakes or being misunderstood. But learning a few basic words can be an easy way to endear yourself to people and possibly yield some unexpected benefits.

Accuracy is often perceived as secondary to the effort, and attempts at speaking the local language can inspire the listener to be more helpful and engaged. A good strategy is to start with the more obvious and necessary words and, if there is any headspace leftover, expand into words or phrases that could make life easier or dazzle the native speakers.

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Saying hello is a crucial first step to opening up a line of communication with people of any language or culture and is the most basic and perhaps easiest word you can learn. Greetings are not only limited to hello—incorporating the time of day along with the wish that it is pleasant is common across many languages. A “good morning” or “good evening” requires learning a few more phrases, but it is more polite and friendly than a plain “hello.” Sometimes a language uses the same word for hello and goodbye, such as “ciao” in Italian, which is marvelously convenient.

When it comes to greetings, Americans are accustomed to following up their hellos with “how are you?” However, in some cultures, “how are you?” is a question that is meant to elicit a genuine response, not the auto-pilot reply of “I’m fine, and you?” In Sweden, for example, asking someone you just met “how are you?” will cause confusion, since this is viewed as a personal question, and you are a stranger.

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Thank You

Along with hello, this is an absolute must-learn word before visiting any country. “Thank you” should be trotted out regularly, as gratitude and acknowledgment are proven to have cross-cultural appeal. Perhaps no other phrase will yield more positive responses and land you in good graces as easily and effectively as a simple “thank you.”

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Polite Phrases

Politeness combined with local language goes a long way, and niceties such as “excuse me,” “you’re welcome,” and “please” can be liberally peppered into most conversations with strangers. “Excuse me” is particularly useful, as not only does the phrase serve as a way to excuse yourself from any blunders you have made or are about to make, but it can also create a soft cushion of goodwill on the front end of any out-of-the-blue questions or favors you are about to ask of a stranger. An “excuse me” icebreaker is more polite than a cold open launch into a question, especially if you are going to follow it up with a barrage of English.

It may be important to distinguish between “excuse me” and “I’m sorry,” as these phrases are not always used interchangeably like they are in English. “I’m sorry” can sometimes be too strong a statement for casual moments, but if you expect that you may do something for which you will need to apologize, then by all means, commit it to memory. Unless you’ve done anything egregious, an “excuse me” or “pardon me” will usually suffice.

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Do You Speak English?

The global reach of English is a huge advantage to native speakers, allowing us to move through the world relatively easily compared to those who speak geographically specific languages. In some countries, fluency in English is required to attend higher learning institutions or to get a job in a particular field. Therefore, it is considerate to remember that in order for non-native speakers to learn how to communicate with you, they were the ones who had to do all the heavy lifting.

Instead of assuming that a person speaks English, asking them first in their native language is a small gesture of acknowledgment that you are not in an English-speaking country. The chances are good that your effort will be appreciated, and you will be excused for your lack of proficiency.

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Yes and No

Not only are “yes” and “no” useful to say, they are also words that are helpful to understand. Some languages have words for “yes” and “no” that can throw off native English speakers; for example, in Arabic, no sounds like “la,” and in Albanian, yes sounds like “po.”

The convenience of “yes” and “no” is that these are words are accompanied by head motions that indicate one or the other. However, not every culture observes these particular physical cues. In Bulgaria, for example, the head motions for yes and no are the opposite—a shake from left to right means yes, while up and down indicates no. This can be deeply confusing as these motions have been embedded into our brains, and so it is best to rely on the words themselves.

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Where Is the Bathroom?

Questions can be tricky, as oftentimes the response will be delivered in the same language, and that is unlikely to provide a resolution. However, if a question pertains to a location, hand gestures can substitute for the spoken word. “Where is the bathroom?” is crucial, as is “where is the bus stop/train station?” These sorts of questions pertain to time-crunch moments in which significant delay could greatly influence the trajectory of the entire day. While hand signals may be sufficient, it could be worth learning a few basic directional words in order to mitigate any races against time.

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How Much?

From food to tickets to taxis, it is imperative to ask and understand the price of goods and services. A useful strategy to avoid overpaying is to ask how much something is before committing to the purchase and also to have a general idea of what you should expect to pay in different circumstances. The advantage of inquiring about numbers is that the reply and any subsequent negotiations can be conveyed using the fingers; however, learning a few numbers will certainly come in handy, even if it is just one, two, and three.

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Water is the source of all life on earth, and not being able to communicate a request for the stuff can lead to an exchange of blank stares, not to mention unquenched thirst. Regardless of a person’s native language, they might be able to recognize the English word for water if they are used to engaging with tourists, but that should not be relied upon. Water is a crucial word to have on tap, since you will need it every day in various capacities—to find bottles of it, or locate places to fill up, or to order it in a restaurant. While “water” is perhaps the most important beverage, it can also be helpful to learn the words for your favorite foods and drinks, such as cold beer, how you take your coffee, white or red wine, or any dietary limitations that you may have.

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While it is not necessary to live in fear when traveling, it is a smart move to know how to ask for help if you happen to find yourself in a dire situation. Being able to call out for help or ask “can you help me?” could alleviate some of the anxiety you may already have if you are in need of assistance. People are attuned to this word, and they are more likely to respond in a timely fashion when it hits their ears.


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Can I Take Your Photo?

Along with photos of landscapes, cuisine, architecture, and wildlife, capturing the people you encounter through your lens is necessary if your goal is to thoroughly document your travels. However, it is often considered rude to take an unauthorized photo of someone and, in some cases, a completely unwelcome gesture. Even in cultures that are not staunchly against the photographing of people, a surreptitious photo can have the effect of relegating a person to merely a character in your experience.

It is best to ask for permission before snapping a photo, which acknowledges a person as a fellow human with personal autonomy whose wishes will be respected. A better strategy is to develop a rapport with a person before requesting their photo. If that is not possible, you can approach the person by giving them a compliment or identifying the distinguishing characteristic that makes you want to take their photo in the first place. Learning the words to tell someone that they look nice or that you like their style can be helpful in your request being accepted.

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Popular Phrases

Understanding the colloquialisms of a place or the commonly used phrases that might not have an English equivalent can help you feel more connected to the place and let people know that you are interested in their culture. Most of these phrases are best learned by paying close attention to interactions between native speakers or asking local people. In Costa Rica, for example, “pura vida” is a widely-used phrase meaning “pure life” that is used frequently in a number of social situations. In Arabic-speaking or Muslim countries, “inshallah” is an oft-repeated term meaning “god willing,” and is regularly used by people of all backgrounds and religions to express hope in a future event coming to pass.


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Expressive Phrases

Learning a few words that convey delight or satisfaction can help you to feel like you are expressing yourself beyond a thumbs up or a smile. Being able to remark that a view is beautiful, a meal is delicious, or a person is kind will let people know that you recognize and appreciate what is special or remarkable about their country.

amyg5786 May 23, 2024

I would avoid using hand guestures, especially one such as the thumbs up, since these can have very different meanings from what you are trying to convey. It would be better to learn the word or research acceptable hand guestures in that country/culture than give someone a rude hand guesture. 

markhill8667 May 23, 2024

Probably the most important phrase is, "I would like" when ordering anything in a restaurant. It's very simple. "Vorrei" (vore - ray).  Vorrei una birra. This simple word before order ordering goes a long way even if you say the English word for the item after saying Vorrei.