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The Most Useful Foreign Phrases to Know

Key foreign phrases and words to know when traveling abroad.

foreign phrases

English is spoken so widely in so many countries that you may never need to utter a foreign word or phrase on your travels abroad. And even in those areas where English is not widely spoken, you can always play it safe and stick close to your tour guide.

But if you don’t speak the language in the country you’re visiting—and you’re not part of an organized tour—knowing a few key foreign phrases can go a long way towards making your trip easier and more enjoyable.

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The trick, according to blogger Jason Lengstorf, is to know just enough to get by. “For a short trip—for instance, five days in Milan—there’s very little chance I’ll really learn the language,” writes Lengstorf, an American who’s freelanced in more than a dozen countries abroad. “Instead, I choose to focus on the words and phrases that meet the minimum requirements for functioning in that country.”

foreign phrases

Foreign phrases 101: the essentials

As a stranger in a strange land, you’ll be relying on the kindness of others. All of the polite first words you were taught as a toddler (“Say ‘please’!” “Say ‘thank you’!”) are the ones you’ll need to know—especially since, in addition to asking for actual information or directions, what you are also hoping for is patience and goodwill.

Along with hello, please, and thank you, apologetic words and phrases will also prove the most helpful. These include I’m sorry, Excuse me, and I’m sorry, I don’t speak (insert foreign language here).

Also essential, when stringing together a foreign phrase with the words “please” and “thank you,” are Yes, No, Help and Call the police/American consulate. (More on this last one later.)

Asking for things

You’ll want to know how to say I would like/May I have and Where is, in addition to some of the things you know you’ll want or need, such as: the check/bill, Wi-Fi password, coffee (the way you like it), water, the museum you’ve come to see, the rest room, the bill, and so on.

Keep in mind that you can memorize a whole list of things you may need directions to, but in many cases a better question than “Where is…” is Can you point me to/Can you point me in the direction of…. Because unless you preface your question with, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak (your language),” what you’ll likely get is a set of directions that will make no sense at all to you.

Emergencies, cheat sheets & apps

Many articles on useful foreign phrases for travelers will include terms for an emergency, such as Help! Call a doctor! and Where is the hospital? Again, these may or not prove helpful when concerned locals try to help you. And, even if they don’t quite qualify as emergencies, you may have needs, desires and requests that may require a little explaining, such as your nut allergy or preference for organic foods.

When miming and pointing to things doesn’t work and attempts at foreign phrases fail, it’s good to have a back-up plan—high tech, low tech or no tech. Before you leave on your trip, type up a list of phrases you think you’ll need—from “My wallet was stolen at the museum” to “If the doctor says I need medical evacuation, here is my travel insurance information.”

You can also whip out your English/foreign language dictionary, check Google translate on your phone, or use an app such as iTranslate Voice, Microsoft Translator, or Translate Pro. (The experts at Trip Savvy believe the latter is worth its price: “Languages are automatically detected and a conversation can be held without pressing any buttons.” Con: It requires an internet connection.)

Foreign phrases 102: personal strategies

Here are a few top tips from travel experts and clever bloggers:

  •  “My strategy to ensure I’ll always be able to find something to eat is to figure out how to translate “ham and cheese” and then pick items off the menu that feature those words.” — Jason Lengstorf
  • “’My (name of language) is not good, but…’ followed my attempt to communicate. This will cause the locals to tune in to you, knowing that they might have to put their thinking caps on. Or, they will start talking with you in English if they know how.” —Roamingwrangler.com
  • “’No thank you, I’m just looking for now.’ Especially in fancier (French) shops, salespeople are seen as experts. They want to help you find what you need. If you’re just browsing, the above sentence can come in handy.” —Fluentu.com

Tell us, s’il vous plaît, what foreign phrases have you found to be most useful in your travels abroad? Share your tips and best insights in the comments section below.

For all things travel-related, go to AAA.com/Travel

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