You had good intentions. You meant to study the language for a few weeks before your trip. But then, life got in the way. Cut to you in your hotel room, recovering from a handful of super awkward interactions you’ve already had on your way from the airport and compiling a short list of essential survival phrases you’ll need to get around with a bare modicum of politeness.
We’ve all been there, and guess what? The important thing is that you decided not to be “that kind of tourist” — you know, the one who visits other countries and greets the locals in English.
Even if it’s too late to get a conversational grasp on the local language, you still have time to put a few survival phrases in your back pocket. At a minimum, knowing how to begin your interaction in the other language is still more gracious than approaching a stranger with a cold open in English.
All of this brings us to a rather interesting philosophical question: if you had to know just one word or phrase in another language, what would it be?
Here are a few survival phrases that might just qualify as “most essential across the board.”
Not all conversations begin with “hello,” but most of the friendly and polite ones do. If you prioritize “hello,” you’re probably optimistic that whatever follows will work itself out. “Hello” is a word of optimism: one that emphasizes the potential of the connection you’re about to make. If you’re going somewhere to make friends (and not just navigate the logistics of your itinerary), then “hello” would be a fine word to prioritize. Here’s how to say “hello” in 21 different languages.
“Please” and “Thank you”
If you’re making your way around a foreign country with little to no knowledge of the local language, you’ll probably be relying on the help of many strangers: a plea for directions here, a translation request there. It’s a small imposition on someone’s time, but a big help to you, and you want to adequately communicate your gratitude. Saying “please” and “thank you” in another person’s language is a pretty good way to convey your appreciation. Here’s a quick guide to doing so in 10 languages.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m an awkward tourist in another country, I find myself apologizing a lot — for bumping into people, for asking for someone’s help or attention, for severely mangling their language (or not knowing it at all). Knowing how to say “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” is not just useful for when you’re in somebody’s way. It’s also useful for acknowledging that you’re a wee bit unprepared, linguistically speaking. Not that most people will mind. But it’s just nicer that way. Before you go, learn to say “sorry” in 10 languages.
“Where is the bathroom?”
Unless you’re okay with the possibility of having to mime “toilet” to a total stranger, you’ll probably need to know the word for “bathroom” if you’re traveling in a foreign country. This is one of those essential survival things that isn’t always self-explanatory to find (like food displayed in a shop window, or a restaurant). When you gotta go, you gotta go, and you probably won’t want to engage in any communication struggles until you’re at peace again. This is how you ask for the bathroom in 10 different languages.
“Do you speak English?”
Ultimately, if you’re feeling like a fish out of water in another country, your best coping strategy will be to find people who can speak English. But in order to do so, you kind of have to ask first. Doing so in the local language will probably be a bit more socially graceful than doing so in English, and you might encounter fewer furrowed brows that way, too.