12 of the Most Important Phrases to Know in Every Language
Very few of us are hyper-polyglots, the kind of people who can master dozens of languages in a lifetime. Still, it’s always polite to at least make an attempt at speaking the native language when traveling in a foreign country. So in the limited time you have before you jet off, what are the most important phrases to try to have under your belt (or on the tip of your tongue) when you land? Try these on for size:
1. Hello! Good day.
These will likely be the words you hear most in your travels, whether it’s from hoteliers, waiters, shopkeepers, or people around town. Practice your accent by throwing out a hearty “bonjour!” or “buenos días!”
2. I don’t speak ___. Do you speak English?
Almost immediately after your greeting, you’ll probably have to break this one out. Commit it to memory for those times when someone comes up to you on the street or in a store with a rapid-fire slew of words that are foreign to you. In that moment, you’ll probably be at a loss for words, and you don’t want to have to shuffle around for your phrasebook for too long.
3. Please and Thank You
Endear yourself to those around you by being as polite as you can. Know the words for please and thank you, and use them often. No doubt it will make people a little more patient when you’re confused or trying to figure out unfamiliar customs.
When exploring a new place, it’s good to be well versed in how to ask for assistance—and to recognize the word when you hear it around you. Potential uses: “Help! I’ve eaten too much and someone needs to help me out of my chair.” “Help! I can’t apply sunscreen to my back alone!”
5. Excuse me.
Traveling often means being in a lot of tight spaces, whether it’s on subways, overnight trains, airplanes, or crowded plazas. In most languages, “excuse me” can do triple duty as a navigation tool, a greeting, or an apology. Try the German “entschuldigen Sie mich.”
6. Where is ___?
You may not be able to understand their answer, but if you look confused enough, people will start pointing. Just keep asking people at every intersection, and eventually you’ll get where you need to go.
7. Where is the bathroom?
Lest you get stuck wandering into a restaurant’s back kitchen or a stock room, be sure you know how to ask where the facilities are—preferably in the politest way possible. No need to be crude.
8. Where is the ATM?
Knowing the right local abbreviation for automatic banking doesn’t seem that important until you’re stuck in a teeny Peruvian town asking everyone in sight for the Spanish equivalent of the “machine that gives you money.” Unless you’ve got an entire trip’s worth of traveler’s checks hidden in your backpack, know the words that will lead you to your stock of extra cash.
9. I need ___.
Being alone in a strange place introduces a lot of needs. Just to start, you’ve got to eat and sleep somewhere every day. And it’s likely you forgot to pack at least one somewhat important item. The demanding “I need” may be a little rudimentary for some purposes, but in a pinch, it does the job. Some potential uses: “I need a room.” “I need a towel.” “I need an ice cream.”
10. Check, please!
In some countries, it’s impolite for a server to bring your table the check until it’s requested. Make sure you know how to ask for it! In Russian, try “Счет, пожалуйста!”
Don’t forget to toast! In Italian, go with “Cin cin.” In Scandinavian countries, it’s “Skål!”
12. I’m allergic to ___.
If you have a dangerous or inconvenient allergy, make sure you know how to express it to the people around you. Alternately, you might need to break this phrase out as a white lie to avoid certain foods. Telling someone you’re allergic to shellfish is a little easier than going on a long diatribe against animal cruelty.