The 5 phrases you should always know how to say in another language


There’s a problem in America where America thinks it’s OK to only know English, because everyone else all over the world should just figure out how to talk to you. And for those of us who don’t have parents who speak a different mother tongue or didn’t seek to learn a second or third language, we have to do better than that when we travel.

We have to be able to say the basics for being polite, for accepting and declining things we want and don’t and for often much-needed haggling.

I don’t expect everyone to memorize these five phrases in every language in the world because, who could really do that? What I do think though, is that it’s important to know these phrases for the destination you’re planning to visit.

Because without them, you could find yourself in some sticky scenarios that you’ll have no clue how to get out of. Or even know that you’re in for that matter.

1. Hello

First thing’s first: if you greet people in their own language, whether you can say much more than that or not, you’ve at least been courteous and shown respect for their country and their culture. This should put you in a more favorable light while they decide how much English they’ll speak with you (if any). It’s also just common courtesy to say hello when you go anywhere, when you meet new people, when you get into a cab, when you greet the shop owner you’re going to want a deal from. So learn to say hi. It’s often the more common thing to say in a language and it’s usually not overly hard to say.

2. Thank you (and please)

In many scenarios in travel, you’ll come across kindnesses to be thankful for. Even simple ones like someone actually giving you what you ordered to eat, or recognizing that you don’t understand a lick of what anyone is saying and giving you an English menu, or pointing you in the direction of what you want to see when you have those inevitable, very touristy moments and pull out a map with a confused look on your face. A simple smile and thank you can get you surprisingly far in place when you only know four other phrases in the language.

Also, learn to say please, please. We mustn’t forget our manners just because we’re somewhere where no one knows us and are hiding behind the excuse that we don’t speak the language.

3. No (and yes)

Sure, some of us may be trying to liberate ourselves and experience more experiences by embracing the word yes. But let me tell you, “No” is a word you’ll come to love embracing when you travel. It can save you from receiving things you didn’t ask for and can rid you (eventually) of the very dedicated salesperson following you around the market in Shanghai asking if you want to go down this alley to look at designer bags and Rolexes. It can also make it very clear that you’re not messing around with your haggling when they say a price you think is crazy (or that you know isn’t actually crazy, but is crazy considering the price a local said you should pay.) Yes, they will very likely understand the word no when it comes with you shaking your head no and waving your hand no, and since no sounds a lot like no in a lot of languages. But something about saying it in the local tongue shows that you know what’s up (at least a little) and it comes across more firm. Think about it in the reverse: If you’re a native English speaker and someone tells you no, doesn’t it feel differently than if they say méiyǒu?

Also learn to say yes, of course.

4. How much does it cost?

As someone who likes to find treasures on my travels, this one has been important. It often gets the haggling off to a good start because the salesperson might think they’re less likely to trick you, and at least they won’t be confusing you into paying a higher price with the language barrier. I don’t always get this phrase out in full, proper speak, sometimes it’s just “how much?” or “price,” but it gets the point across.

The only thing here is that if you really trick the person into thinking you speak the language, you better learn their numbers too or you’ll be found out pretty quickly.

5. Food phrases

OK, so this category isn’t a specific one as it’s going to depend on your needs. For me, I want to make sure I don’t have ice in countries that don’t have clean water, so I’ll learn how to say “no ice.” For vegetarians, it might be good to learn how to say “vegetarian” or at least “no meat.” I have a friend who doesn’t eat cheese (I know, why are we even friends?), so that’s a key one for him.

This won’t be important everywhere as many people in many parts of the world do speak English, but I’ve been quite a few places in my travels where there’s no English menu and the non-English menu doesn’t come with pictures—not that you can even always tell by looking at a photo what all the ingredients are. I’m fortunate because I don’t have a lot of dietary restrictions, but for those who do, this is really important.

*Where is the bathroom?

This was always a favorite first phrase to learn for travels and in high-school French I, so learn this too if you’re always in search of a bathroom. I guess I’ve just found that bathrooms are generally in pretty easy to find places and come with girl and boy icons that transcend language. Unless of course you’re in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Then you know what to do.