Five types of words and phrases to learn in a foreign language

When traveling to many foreign countries, especially if you’ll be sticking to major cities, there’s no need to be completely fluent in the local language. But knowing a few key words and phrases can make your experience not only easier, but richer as well. While many people in the tourist industry speak English, they’ll still greatly appreciate your efforts in speaking their native tongue. Phrases like hello and goodbye are no-brainers, but a few other, less obvious phrases will be invaluable as well.

The Bare Minimum

Please/Thank you

There’s no excuse for not learning at least these words and phrases. Being able to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes and no won’t get you far in a conversation, but the people you speak with may appreciate your minimal effort.

The Basics

Numbers 1-10 and the general rules for converting to tens, twenties, hundreds, thousands, and so on
Where is?
How much?
What time is it?
I would like. . .
The bill please.
Hotel, restaurant, train station, taxi, toilet, airport, bus
Police, hospital, help
In crowded bars and on the street, knowing your numbers, and being able to ask how much something is, what time it is, for a certain number of something, where something is (and the words for the things you might inquire the location of), or for the bill, will get you what you need with little fuss. You won’t be able to hold a conversation, but you’ll be able to get directions and order food or drinks easily. In many countries, restaurant servers won’t bring your bill until you ask so knowing how to do so will save you time waiting around for the check.
It’s also wise to know a few words for emergencies. You hope you won’t need to know how to ask for help or call for the police, but if you do, you’ll be glad to be able to communicate when it’s most important for your safety and well-being.

Food Phrases
Meat, cheese, bread

You can always sound out the pronunciation of your desired item from the menu, or just point to it at the bar, but you may not end up with what you want. Memorizing the translations for a few basic foods will help point you in the right culinary direction. The words and phrases you’ll use most often may change from country to country but it’s always wise to learn the words for water, beer, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat, and plate.

If you have any food allergies, you should also learn how to say “I cannot have. . .” in that language. Many people prefer to just write the phrase down and hand it to the server each time they order a meal.

Avoiding Embarrassment
I’m sorry, I don’t speak. . .
Do you speak English?
Every traveler tries not to stand out as a tourist. But sometimes the strategy of looking like a local can backfire – like when someone approaches you in Barcelona and starts speaking rapid-fire Spanish and all you can do is stare blankly back at him. Instead of staying mute or responding in English, this is the time to pull out the phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” of whatever the local language is. Likewise, before launching into an English interrogation, you can politely inquire of another “Do you speak English?” in his or her native tongue.

Conversation Starters
What is your name? /My name is. . .
Where are you from? /I am from. . .
This is my husband/wife/child.
You’ll never be able to have an in-depth discussion with a person who doesn’t speak your language. But you can at least engage them with a few rudimentary phrases. Being able to ask people their names and then giving yours, sharing where you are from, or being able to inquire about family, can help them see you as a person like them, rather than a foreigner.
Though many of us would like to speak the local language anywhere we go, it’s often not a realistic option. Knowing these keys words and phrases won’t make you fluent, but they will help you get more out of your journey. If you can’t memorize them all, just make yourself a handy “cheat sheet” that you can pull out when needed.

Word for the Travel Wise (11/16/06)

Don’t know how long ago this happened, but it looks as if the Bangla Bazar found on Virtual Bangladesh has teamed up with Amazon to help interested patrons with a desire to hear music from the country purchase it right from their site. This news might be centuries old to some folks out there, but seeing how I don’t frequent Virtual Bangladesh too often it is all new news to me. Anyhow, picking up a CD or two might help in learning the language. This method has assisted me many times in the past in learning a handful of new words. If you’re really interested in knowing what all the lyrics mean right away, you’ll need someone to translate them for you. In that event let them know you’d like their help and toss out this word.

Today’s word is a Bangla (Bengali) word used in Bangladesh:

ohnubad – translate

Web resources for Bangla are few, but you can pick up quite a few words reading (not skimming) through the Wiki and from this Bangalinet site which has a small tutorial on how to write in the script. Beyond those two I’m sure there are others, but as I mentioned above it was like pulling teeth to get this word. With that being said class is dismissed.

Past Bangla words: bhromon, shobbho, nir dohsh

Word for the Travel Wise (10/23/06)

For today’s selection I went back over to Ethiopian Restaurant dot com once more to see what goodies I could use and here you have it! Next stop Ethiopia!

Today’s word is a Amharic word used in Ethiopia:

yikerta – (yi-ke-r-ta) excuse me

Amharic is the second most Semitic language in the world after Arabic. It is the official working lingo of Ethiopia and spoken in such places as Egypt, Israel, and Sweden by a number of emigrants. The writing system called abugida is based from the now extinct Ge’ez language. In addition to Amharic other widely spoken languages in the country include Tigrinya, Somali, and Arabic to name a few. Wikipedia has good background information on the lang if you’re at all interested, but for those ready to dig in here’s a couple of places to learn online.

Ethiopian Restaurant dot com was kind enough to include some basic Amharic to use while in a restaurant from which I pulled our word for the day. This a great starter to days of the week, numbers, asking for your bill and other small useful phrases. Listen online to KFAI radio for Amharic broadcast out of Minnesota. Check their schedule for program times and listen daily as a self-learning tool. African Language has Amharic software for purchase and Amazon has a number of books for purchase including the Amharic LP phrasebook.

Past Amharic words: qurse, shuruba, ameseginalehu, buhe

Word for the Travel Wise (10/10/06)

Just as fall begins it seems as though winter weather comes bulldozing its way in complete with snow flurries and flakes. Now in my mind it couldn’t be a more beautiful or romantic time to plan a holiday in France and this Pyrenees winter walking excursion looks perfect if you share my same thoughts. Responsible Travel has several departure dates in December as well as early 2007, but if you’re not into package deals use their info as a guide and build your own trip. I’m not a big fan of packaged programs either, but I must say this one kicking off in the French spa town of Luchon does seem pretty decent.

Today’s word is a French word used in France:

neige – snow

French is the third largest Romance language in the world in terms of native speakers according to the Wikipedia and is the official language of 29 countries. There are a number of places to learn French abroad which include Canada and Switzerland in addition to France. Amerispan offers immersion programs in all three of the countries and more info can be found by clicking here. Search other study abroad programs at some of these sites here: Coeur de France, Accord French Language School, and Transitions Abroad to name only a few. Swing over to My Language Exchange where you are sure to find someone willing to exchange their lingo skills for some of your own. Free online sources for learning French include France-Pub, French Assistant, and the BBC Languages.

Past French words: confiture, difficile, frottis, ma reum (mère), pensées, vélo, croire

Word for the Travel Wise (09/11/06)

The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive is just around the corner – that’s if you consider May 2007 nearby. This should be enough time to plan if you wish to take part in rounding up 500 head of cattle, taking them through the outback by day and sleeping by a cozy, warm, crackling campfire at night. The four nights five day cattle drive tours take place May 5 – June 10, 2007. See details on

Today’s word is a Bush word used in Australia:

duffing – stealing cattle

Hiroyuki Yokose does a great job outlining Aboriginal words used in Australian English like our vocab words from the past. For additional words you may wish to check out his findings. The Bangerang Cultural Centre is one of the first Aboriginal museums in the country and has a list of words online from this particular tribe. Wiki lists a large number of tribes and languages found in Australia which if you already haven’t set your mind on one in particular you can try picking one off their list. Try Lonely Planet’s Outback Australia guide for additional offline reading and trip planning.

Past Aboriginal/Australian words: cooee, yabber, bush telly