Top 10 Basic Phrases to Know in Any Language

Hello in many languages

Written by Marcela De Vivo, a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area who writes on everything from health & wellness, marketing, technology, and travel. She currently writes for the language-learning software Transparent Language.

In the excitement of planning a trip to a foreign country, it can be easy to overlook a little something that can make a big difference — learning the language. Whether you’re travelling for business or for pleasure, for a week or for half a year, learning the language of the country/countries you plan on visiting can go a long way to making your trip much more pleasurable.

Communication with locals can open up new opportunities or experiences, or simply help you figure out where the heck you are. Pointing and miming can really only get you so far, after all.

So while it’s always a good idea to get some sense of the language(s) you’ll be encountering, if you’re crunched for time here are the top ten basic phrases to know in any language:

1. Hello!

Hello

Seems obvious, but knowing how to properly greet someone according to their social and cultural customs can make any exchange much more pleasant. Even if you’re just walking down the street, for example, being able to say smile and “bonjour!” to anyone who makes eye contact can make you feel like you’re truly getting the full Parisian experience.

If you want to take it a step further, learn some other social niceties such as “nice to meet you”, how to say good morning/afternoon/night, and of course, goodbye!

2. Please / Thank You

Please and thanks

Manners and humility can go a long when you’re abroad, especially when you aren’t familiar with the language. Even if you mostly use your own native language, try and tack on these words or combine them with other basic phrases as you attempt conversation, even when it’s as simple as “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you.”

Most locals can tell right away whether or not you know how to speak the language, but the fact that you are attempting it—and politely!—will help smooth things over.

3. Excuse Me

This also falls under the politeness category, but the phrase “excuse me” often has many applications in different languages. In some languages it is interchangeable with “sorry” or “pardon” or “I don’t understand”, meaning it can be used to get someone’s attention, to make your way through a large crowd, or as a blanket response when you don’t understand what someone is saying, at which point you can use…

4. “Speak”

This word can be pretty important. In a pinch you can combine it with a couple other basic words to get your point across, especially when it comes to the language barrier.

Saying “Speak” with “English” and “sorry” makes a pretty clear case that you only speak English and/or your native language, and perhaps can’t understand what the other person is saying, even if it’s far from grammatically correct. You can also turn it into a question to ask if anyone else speaks English.

5. Where is …?

Finding myself around

Knowing the phrase for “where is” can cover a variety of situations. Most commonly, it’ll probably help you find the nearest toilet, but it can also help with directions to various locations, or finding a particular object in a store you’d like to buy.

Key words to learn with this phrase: “restaurant”, “hotel”, “bank”, “hospital”, “bus/train station”, and of course “toilet.” Make sure you know the right word for “toilet”, because while in English we use bathroom/restroom/toilet almost interchangeably, in some countries there is a very big difference.

6. How much?

How much?

A dining and shopping must-know, especially if you’re on a budget. The currency exchange rate varies from country to country, so you not only need to know the price of what you’re buying, but also what it will actually cost you in your home currency.

Be careful though, if you ask in the native language, you might get a response in that language, too! As such, it might be good to brush up on the language’s number/counting system. If worst comes to worst, carry a little notebook and gesture for them to write the price down.

7. I would like…

Many restaurants and shops in larger tourist destinations hire staff that can speak a few languages, so communication should not be a problem. For the most part, pointing to an item on the menu/shelf will get the point across, but if you want to make that extra effort, or if you’re in a small local bar, café, or shop,  it would benefit you to know how to order and ask for the basics.

Key words to learn with this phrase: “water”, “coffee”, “beer/wine”, “bread”, or the more generic “that” or “this.” Numbers can come in handy here, too.

8. Check please!

Check please

It’s also important to know overall restaurant etiquette, how to ask for the bill. For example, in Japan you often need to push a button on your table to ever get your serve to come by. If you don’t, you’ll be waiting for a very long time!

It would also be good to know the words for the methods of payment, cash and credit card, so that you can make sure you can pay for your meal even before you place your order.

9. Help!

Help

Hopefully you won’t have to use this one, but it is a critical phrase in case of emergency. If you’ll be carrying a cell phone with you on your travels, learn the local emergency number so that you can get assistance immediately. Know how to describe your location: street names, the name of the district/neighboruhood, the address of your hotel, etc.

10. Cheers!

Cheers!

Cheers, Prost, Salute, Kanpai, Na zdravi, Gān bēi—whatever the word is, wherever in the world you might be, this phrase is sign of a good time and definitely worth learning! Raise your drink and say your toast like a true native.

Can you think of any other sayings that you should know for every trip abroad? Let us know in the comments…

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Thanks to Rod WaddingtonMichael MandibergDenis De Mesmaekermarc falardeauAlpha, epSos.de and Aaron Harmon for the images off Flickr. Please note that all images were used under the Creative Commons license at the time of posting.

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