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.

A Canadian in Beijing: Vegan Mandarin Language Survival Guide

When I first arrived in China, I wrote a post entitled: “Vegan in China, Part 1.” It was pretty negative all around. Why? Because I was hungry! About half-way through my trip, I followed that post up with a piece about the presence of an active vegetarian and vegan society here in Beijing. I would consider that my “Vegan in China, Part 2” post, although it wasn’t titled as such. This, then, should be considered my “Part 3” post, as it’s now at a point where I’m posting to help the next traveller get through these food dilemmas rather than posting in the hopes that someone will help me!!

I’m on third base and I’m heading home.

(to my own kitchen! I can’t wait to do some full-scale cooking again!)

Because I have experienced the trials of getting my language skills to the point where I can successfully feed myself, this post includes the explanation of some necessary short phrases in Mandarin for a person who fits this description:

  • non-Chinese speaking
  • vegetarian or vegan
  • who is in a restaurant
  • that isn’t necessarily vegetarian
  • and staring at a menu
  • that isn’t written in English
  • and is nearly faint with hunger

Good luck!

The following sentences I have found to be very useful. I have written them out in both “pinyin” (their sounds) along with the tones (the numbers in brackets) for those who have some knowledge of Chinese pronunciation. They are followed by the actual characters and then the translation, all of which is set off in the boxes below.

Under each box, I have explained how to actually say these sentences. This isn’t official and I’m not a linguist (let’s state the obvious right off the top!) but these are common English words or close approximations which can help an English speaker find these sounds without much difficulty. At least, here’s hoping!

So, let’s start off with the basic greeting and ice breaker. This is good to say when the waiter or waitress approaches your table and looks at you expectantly. It’s both a greeting and a comment, and it’s very casual and so it will probably make them laugh or smile if they’re not completely overworked and miserable to begin with!

Pronunciation Approximation: Knee-how, woe doe kuai euh seuh le

Here “kuai” is like the sound of “kw” put with the word “eye,” also known as one of the casual words for the currency here in China. Also, “euh” is like the vowel sound of the word “wood” in English. Just take off the “w” and the “d” and that’s your sound. If that doesn’t work for you and you speak any French, then this sound is also the sound of the French letter “e.” Another tip is the tail end of the German word “adieu” but with the German pronunciation! Finally, these three words “euh seuh le” all rhyme. I left “le” as it stands in its pinyin form because almost everyone pronounces that one correctly on first sight!

Other options include: “Wo hen e” 我很饿! or “wo feichang e” 我非常饿! = “I’m very hungry” and “I’m extremely hungry,” respectively. Pronunciation Approximation: “woe hun euh” or “woe fay-chong euh.”

Next, we’ll move to the crux of the issue. You’ve just expressed that you’re really hungry but this isn’t going to be easy. This is a great place to also put the opening “I am a vegetarian” statement (see image that starts this blog.) It can either follow #2 or precede #2. The word “but” is “danshi” and can easily be removed at anytime. It’s just a filler here.

Pronunciation Approximation: Dan sheuh, woe e dee-are roe yeh boo cheuh

Here the “e” is just as it looks. It sounds just like the letter “e” in English as though you’re naming the letter in the alphabet.

Next, you need to acknowledge the fact that you’ve no idea what’s happening on the menu that has been set before you and you need the server’s help. I can teach you how to say “I don’t understand this” or “I can’t read Chinese,” but that’s just boring. Why not enlist their assistance in the process? You can wave your hand at the menu and/or close it altogether. Most people assume that foreigners can’t read Chinese anyway, and so I think it’s unnecessary to state the obvious if this is the case.

The following is a casual and friendly way to request their help ordering. Since they already know that you’re not a meat eater, they will now (ideally) only suggest vegetarian options! Feel free to repeat the statement above (#2) to reinforce your point.

Pronunciation Approximation: Knee gay woe tway gee-anne gee geuh bah

Don’t forget that “gee” is not a hard “g” but a soft “g.” This is the fifties word of “darn,” for more context! Also, If you’re still having trouble with that “euh” sound then here is another tip: this “geuh” is the beginning of “good” without the “d” at the end of it.

Now, here’s yet another point of clarity. Sometimes the server will respond to your request for their suggestions (above) with yet more questions about what you’re interested in, i.e. what flavours you’d like, whether you can eat hot foods, etc. If you don’t speak Chinese, this will all be fired at you with questioning eyes and it will only be responded to in return by your questioning eyes of complete confusion. Generally, if you don’t know what has been said to you, keep the doors open! This comment, below, encourages them to be more assertive in their suggestions to you and gets you closer to food.

Pronunciation Approximation: Jeuh yao may yo roe doe keuh yee

Here, “yao” rhymes with “mao,” as in the Chairman!

Now, much vegetarian food here in China contains eggs. In fact, it’s been really hard to find soups without egg in them, for example. Dumplings are often made with eggs, as well, even if they’re not described as such on the menu. So, if you’re vegan and you don’t want your vegetable soup to arrive with egg floating in it, then this next sentence is really vital.

Pronunciation Approximation: Woe yeh boo cheuh gee dan

Next, here is another phrase that is useful for the vegans out there! Now, it’s not exactly a lie. Technically, if you’ve been a vegan for a while then your body will stop producing lactase, the enzyme necessary to breakdown lactose which is found in milk products. Thus, eating lactose will result in a great big stomach ache and some might identify this response as a typical allergic reaction! (What’s more, lots of people are lactose intolerant these days and so it’s not so rare for restaurants to hear, even in China.)

I do find this explanation works a hell of a lot better than expressing that you choose to simply not consume dairy products. In the bubble tea line-up, you’ll be sure to get a few odd stares when you just say that you don’t drink milk. An allergy makes everyone more vigilant about protecting you and their livelihood. In fact, sometimes I even use the allergy angle in English-speaking countries…

Pronunciation Approximation: Woe dway knee-oh nigh jeuh pin goa min

By “nigh” I mean the word that rhymes with “eye!” I know it’s not a very common word, but it’s still in the dictionary! Also, “goa” is just like “boa,” as in the snake!

Finally, this is your last resort. When there’s no way to get any food because you have not been understood in the least and everyone looks lost and frustrated, saying the following phrase while also cupping your hands in a small bowl and simultaneously pointing to something white (or pointing at the bowls on someone else’s table!) will surely get you some white rice. Afterall, this is a staple food here!

Pronunciation Approximation: Gay woe e wawn bye fun

Here “wawn” rhymes with “yawn” and don’t forget that the “e” is just like the sound of the English letter “e” when you’re naming it off in the alphabet.


Alright, here lies the end of this quick-vegetarian-or-vegan-language-survival-in-a-restaurant lesson!

And, as I said in my last post, if all else fails then there are always “su baozi” (pronounced: sue bao zeuh). See this post for more information on this tasty restaurant replacement food!

But mostly, the possibilities are here and China has shown me that there is even more for me to eat in a restaurant (besides salad!) than in a typical North American restaurant. I have completely changed my tune from the Part 1 post; there’s so much out there for me to eat! My body is happy.

My official stance on the issue is this:

The visiting vegan or vegetarian should have no trouble in Beijing.

Oh, I guess you could also just print this off! Then, you can just show the server these phrases and the only reason for opening your mouth can be to put food inside it!