You can achieve incredible results by learning just a few basic phrases when travelling to another country.
Often, native English speakers believe that everyone speaks English. So when they travel, they don’t bother learning the language of the place they’re visiting. After all, it’s fine to get by in English, right? Well, maybe. But there’s a much better way of doing things.
I’m not saying you should become fluent in the language of every place you visit (unless that’s your dream). I am saying that learning just a few words and phrases can hugely enrich your travel experience.
Of course, you won’t want to waste your time memorising words and phrases you’ll soon forget or will never use. In my years of experience in travel and language hacking, I’ve found the following words and phrases to be the most important to learn.
Ollie was “Astounded” After He Learned These 16 Must-Know Phrases
Fluent in 3 Months reader Ollie read an earlier version of this article, and he decided to learn some basic phrases in Vietnamese ahead of a trip to Vietnam. He emailed me to tell me about his experiences:
It astounded me how much [Vietnamese] people appreciated me just learning a few words in Vietnamese… My best experience was with two men in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, we were queuing for a boat ride when I asked two men what there names were, they looked at each other in astonishment! They couldn't believe what they were seeing, a white person speaking Vietnamese! They were smiling so much and we conversed for a few minutes, they then stuck to me for the entire trip!
You should also know that Ollie was just 17 when he did this. You can read Ollie's full email at the end of this article.
Holly's “Magical” Experience Speaking Burmese… with Just a Handful of Phrases
Fi3M's very own Holly Keenan decided to learn just 20 phrases in Burmese ahead of her trip to Myanmar. Within just a day of arriving she was chatting with the locals. Holly writes:
It’s hard to express what a magical experience it was to have this short conversation with such a friendly group of Burmese women. I kept thinking back to it with a smile over the next several days… I ended up using nearly every one of the few phrases I had learned, and it improved the trip more than I ever would’ve expected.
After that experience, I made a promise to myself to never travel to another country again without learning at least a few sentences in the local language. I want to make the most out of my trips, and that doesn’t just mean seeing the sights. It also (or rather, especially) means interacting and connecting with the people who live there.
Here's Why I Avoid English When I'm Travelling
I’ve been travelling around the world since 2003 and during that time, have lived in 23 different countries. My goal at first was to spend as much time as possible learning the native language of each country, before moving on. Some languages I was quick to forget. Others I’ve maintained fluency in to this day.
Along the way, there were a handful of countries I visited that I never intended to spend more than a few days in, so I didn’t try to become conversant in the native language before arrival. Yet, like Ollie and Holly, I’d still invest whatever time I had available in learning as much of the language as I could in advance – even if it was only enough to get by.
This is because my personal travel style is to avoid using English as much as possible.
Why? It’s really not that hard to get by in another language, and as you saw in Holly and Ollie's stories, it opens you up to cultural experiences that you’d otherwise miss. Researching a place on the Internet can only get you so far. The locals know the best places to eat and shop, the stand-out sights to see, the most beautiful beaches and the most unforgettable cultural experiences.
Fail to learn any of the local language, and you’ll miss all this. You lose out on more than you probably realise.
That’s why I always learn a little bit of the local language in whatever amount of time I have available, even if it’s only hours or minutes. For instance, I made the most of a single hour, learning the basics in Polish.
So the next time you’re heading out to a foreign country where English isn’t the first language, spend a few minutes researching the following phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting.
These are the most important phrases to learn, though for some reason they’re often sprinkled throughout phrasebooks rather than being featured on the first page.
I’ve included translations for German, French, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Italian.
Let's get started!
The number one word you should learn to say before visiting any country is “thanks”. It’s polite and people will appreciate the effort you’ve made to acknowledge them in their own language.
- German: Danke
- French: Merci
- Mandarin Chinese: Xièxie
- Spanish: Gracias
- Italian: Grazie
2. “I’m sorry”
For the sake of good manners, it’s good to know how to say sorry. You can say it when moving through a crowd, or when a general apology is required.
- German: Es tut mir leid – “I am sorry” or Entschuldigung – “excuse me”
- French: Je suis désolé (for male speakers), Je suis désolée (for female speakers) or pardon
- Mandarin Chinese: Duìbùqĭ or bù hǎoyìsi
- Spanish: Lo siento or perdón
- Italian: Mi dispiace or perdono
What’s the first thing do when initiating conversation? You greet them, like so:
- German: Hallo
- French: Bonjour
- Mandarin Chinese: Nǐ hǎo
- Spanish: Hola
- Italian: Ciao
4. “Can I have…”
When you travel, chances are you’ll be eating out, spending time in bars, and buying souvenirs. This is a handy phrase to know for ordering in a restaurant, bakery, coffee shop or bar.
- German: Kann ich einen Kaffee haben…? – Can I have a coffee?”
- French: Je voudrais un croissant. – “I would like a croissant.”
- Mandarin Chinese: Wŏ yào zhè gè. – “I want this.”
- Spanish: ¿Me trae dos cafés, por favor? – “Please give me two coffees.”
- Italian: Posso avere… – “I can have…”
5. “How much does it cost?”
It helps to be savvy while travelling, as well as being mindful of whether you’re staying within your budget
- German: Wieviel kostet das? – “How much is that?”
- French: Combien ça coûte ?
- Mandarin Chinese: Zhè shì duōshǎo qián?
- Spanish: ¿Cuánto cuesta?
- Italian: Quanto costa/costano? (singular/plural)
“Yes” is one of the simplest words to learn and it helps that it tends to remain constant across many Romance languages.
- German: Ja
- French: Oui
- Mandarin Chinese: Shì (Technically there is no word for “yes” in Mandarin, but in many cases ‘it is’ works – otherwise, you’d repeat the verb of the question)
- Spanish: Sí
- Italian: Sì
Why would you learn how to say “yes” without learning the translation for “no”?
- German: Nein
- French: Non
- Mandarin Chinese: Bú shì (Similarly to yes, as explained above, this actually means ‘it isn’t’, as there’s no single word for ‘no’ in Mandarin. If you put bù (‘not`) before the verb in question that tends to be what you need)
- Spanish: No
- Italian: No
8. “I am…”
“I am” is a much better phrase to learn than “My name is…”. Why? You can apply it to a range of topics – not only your name but your job, nationality and many other things. It’s the perfect phrase to use with Tarzan speak.
- German: Ich bin…
- French: Je suis…
- Mandarin Chinese: Wǒ shì…
- Spanish: Soy…
- Italian: Io sono…
9. “What’s your name?”
After you’ve introduced yourself, you’ll want to know how to ask for an introduction in return.
- German: Wie heißen Sie? (formal) or Wie heißt du? (informal)
- French: Comment vous appelez-vous ? (formal) or Comment tu t'appelles ? (informal)
- Mandarin Chinese: Nǐ guìxìng? (formal) Nǐ jiào shénme míngzi? (informal)
- Spanish: ¿Cómo se llama usted? (formal) or ¿Cómo te llamas? (informal)
- Italian: Lei come si chiama? (formal) or Tu come ti chiami? (informal)
10. “How are you?”
If you find yourself in conversation with a local, it’s a mark of common decency to ask how they are. I find that people across many different cultures who work in service roles really appreciate it when you take the time to ask how they’re doing.
- German: Wie geht es dir?
- French: Comment allez-vous ? or the informal Ça va ?
- Mandarin Chinese: Nǐ hǎo ma? (While this is technically correct, you're more likely to hear something along the lines of Nǐ zuìjìn zěnme yàng? – How have you been lately?)
- Spanish: ¿Cómo estás?
- Italian: Come stai?
A quick, go-to response if someone asks how you’re doing.
- German: Mir geht es großartig! – “I am great!”
- French: Ça va bien ! – “I am good!”
- Mandarin Chinese: Wǒ hěn hǎo!
- Spanish: Bien
- Italian: Bene!
12. “Again, please”
A beginner in any language will have trouble understanding what a native speaker is saying, as they will talk at a fast pace. Don’t panic – just ask them to repeat what they said. If you’re new to the language, you don’t have to memorise how to say “Sorry, can you repeat that” – a quick “again, please” will usually do the trick.
- German: Bitte wiederholen Sie – “Please repeat”.
- French: Répétez s'il vous plaît – “Repeat, please”.
- Mandarin Chinese: Máfán nǐ, zài shuō yībiān – “Please say that again”
- Spanish: ¿Disculpa? – ¿Perdón? or ¿Cómo? – “How?”
- Italian: Vuole ripetere, per favore? – “Could you repeat that please?”
13. “More slowly, please”
This is another phrase you can use when natives speak really fast. It reduces the risk of them repeating themselves at the same pace.
- German: Langsamer, bitte
- French: Plus lentement s'il vous plaît
- Mandarin Chinese: Qǐng màn màn yīdiǎn
- Spanish: Más despacio por favor
- Italian: Più lentamente per favore
14. “Sorry, I Don’t Understand”
If you’re having issues communicating with a native speaker – tell them!
- German: Entschuldigung, das verstehe ich nicht.
- French: Je suis désolé, je ne comprends pas. (for male speaker) Je suis désolée, je ne comprends pas. (for female speakers)
- Mandarin Chinese: Bù hǎoyìsi, wǒ tīng bù dǒng.
- Spanish: Lo siento, no entiendo.
- Italian: Mi dispiace, non capisco.
15. “Where is (the)…?”
You’re navigating a new country. Chances are, you’ll get lost now and again. Don’t be afraid to ask a local for directions. Even if you can’t follow their directions, you can get them to show you your destination on a map.
- German: Wo ist (der/die/das)…?
- French: Où est (le/la)…
- Mandarin Chinese: … zài nǎlǐ?
- Spanish: Dónde está (el/la)…
- Italian: Dov'è (il/la)…
Another phrase that’s really good to know.
- German: Auf Wiedersehen (formal) or Tschüss (informal)
- French: Au revoir
- Mandarin Chinese: Zàijiàn
- Spanish: Adiós
- Italian: Arrivederla/ci
With these words and phrases in your pocket, you’ll endear yourself to the locals, and you’ll have a more authentic experience.
Speaking even a tiny bit of a foreign language makes you feel more thoughtful, widens your world view, gives you buckets of self confidence… and it’s addictive. Once you’ve had a taste of talking with someone in a language that isn’t your own, it can be really hard to stop!
Ollie's Full Story of his Time in Vietnam Learning Just a Few Words and Phrases
Talking of getting a taste of speaking in another language, here's the full email I received from my reader Ollie (You'll remember I shared the first part of Ollie's story earlier in this article):
Date: Wed, Dec 6, 2017
Subject: Trip to Vietnam, thank you!
My names Ollie, I'm 17 years old and I live in London. (Thought I'd give you a bit of context as you must get emails from people all over the world!)
I was looking at your blog a few months ago to find out more about trying to learn Spanish when I came across your blog '16 Must-Know Words and Phrases For Any Language'. I thought it was a really handy list and told myself next time I go abroad I would learn those phrases. I then found out I would be going to Vietnam in the summer!! So I learnt the phrases in Vietnamese in the few weeks before my big trip and I was very excited to use all the phrases.
I really enjoyed learning the phrases so I bought a phrasebook for a fiver the day before my trip. On the plane journey there, our TVs weren't working so I spent many hours of the journey creating new sentences and learning the original ones inside out. We finally arrived and my first words were a meek ‘Cam ern' to the miserable, scary passport man. Even that gave me a kick and made me want more. When we arrived and put our bags down I ventured into the chaos of Hanoi, I had learnt how to say ‘how much is this?' and all the numbers in Vietnamese, so I confidently asked a shopkeeper the question and she replied with what sounded like gibberish to me! She then said it in English and I felt like a right idiot, but I was ready to keep trying! I'm glad to say it only got better from there. <
We had a trip to Halong Bay where I practiced my Vietnamese on our tour guide, he spoke English very well so helped me out a lot, he was extremely impressed and shocked that I had made the effort to learn some Vietnamese. I then spoke to a woman on the boat who couldn't speak any English which was a challenge but I managed to converse a little. Again she was very impressed!
My best experience was with two men in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, we were queuing for a boat ride when I asked two men what there names were, they looked at each other in astonishment! They couldnt believe what they were seeing, a white person speaking Vietnamese! They were smiling so much and we conversed for a few minutes, they then stuck to me for the entire trip! We weren't even talking! Just walking next to me smiling. I got some photos with them aswell!
My other memorable experience was with two little kids on a train to Hoi An, they were two really cute little twin boys who were giggling away and smiling at me, I then said something to them in Vietnamese and they started laughing and singing english songs they knew, we counted to ten in English and Vietnamese! I also talked to their mum for a while and it was all a lovely experience! Which I wouldn't have had if it wasn't for you.
I also found learning the phrases useful for conversing with other english speaking travellers, they are all very interested with the Vietnamese I've learnt and want to learn some themselves.
Sorry, I went on a bit but I hope you enjoy reading about my experience and I hope you know how grateful I am to you for writing your blog! It astounded me how much people appreciated me just learning a few words in Vietnamese.
Over to You
What's your experience been when learning a few basic phrases before travelling? Drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to let me know.
Also, are there any words or phrases that you try to learn before travelling? Is there one particular go-to phrase that you think should be on this list? Let me know in the comments.