Over the course of this year, we have visited over a dozen countries in which English is not the primary language. In each one, we’ve tried to learn some basic vocabulary to help us get around and communicate with locals.
What not to learn
One thing that complicates this effort is that when you Google for things like ‘Japanese words’ or ‘hello in Khmer’ or ‘Thai travel words,’ you often get a language primer that makes no sense. For example, why in the world would we ever need to know how to say ‘how are you?’ Not only is this not appropriate etiquette in many countries (common though it may be in the US), but we wouldn’t understand the answer anyway. The lists of words in these guides are often baffling. Here are some of the phrases I don’t understand learning, especially given limited time and brain space:
- “Nice to meet you.” – With whom are you developing a long-term foreign-language-based relationship, that you should need to say this? And if you really are, I suggest smiling a lot.
- “Help!” or “Stop!” – We are lucky not to have needed this phrase. That said, I doubt that in the heat of a stressful or dangerous moment that I would remember this, and – or pronounce it correctly.
- “I’m lost.” – Why not just ask, ‘Where is XYZ?’ That you are lost doesn’t communicate anything.
- “I’m hungry.” – If you’re in a restaurant, I’m betting that your server already knows this.
- “How do you say XYZ in Language A?” – If they understand what XYZ is, you don’t need to know it in their language, do you?
- “Open” or “Closed” – I presume this is so you can determine if a shop or restaurant is open, but doesn’t looking inside or trying to open the door achieve the same thing? If it’s closed, no one will even see your potentially embarrassing battle with the door handle.
- “My name is” or “What’s your name?” – I get that different cultures have different kinds of monikers, so you may not immediately recognize that “Rooslahn” or “Shilpa” are people’s names. However, body language is pretty obvious here: if someone puts his hand on his own chest, says one individual word, and looks to you, he probably wants to know your name.
What to learn instead
In each place we visit, our goal is to be able to say at least a few words in the local language – to avoid offending, to show gratitude, to get around, and to communicate goodwill. But, when you switch countries every few weeks, it is impossible to retain a large inventory of words in any language… after a while, even your own! So, if you have limited mental space, but endless enthusiasm and goodwill, here is what I would learn:
- “Thank you” – Gratitude is, by far, the most useful thing to know how to express, anywhere we have visited.
- “…very much” – Amplifying gratitude is the second most important thing, in my opinion.
- “Please” – This is lower on the list because not every country even has a word for this; some places build politeness into the way they phrase questions or requests.
- “Hello” or “Good day” – Greeting people makes them more inclined to try to help you with anything that comes afterwards. Which is mostly pantomime.
- “How much?” – Rubbing your fingers together to denote money is not universal, so it helps to be able to ask how much something is instead.
- “I don’t understand” – Though looks of confusion are often sufficient, I find it more polite to learn a basic way to verbalize my incompetence.
- “Sorry” – This is borderline, because apologies are appropriate immediately after a gaffe (like bumping into someone), but you may not remember the word for it quickly enough <link coming>. But I like to be able to apologize, so I don’t seem like a “typical rude American” (at least, not as rude).
- To eat – You might be surprised by how often it’s been helpful to know how to refer to food, especially since smacking your gums or making chewing motions is often impolite. And rubbing your tummy may make people believe you’re either pregnant or in need of stomach medicine.
- Food words – Because I have food limitations, I need to know the name of foods I don’t eat (e.g. pork) – unless B is willing to be my garbage disposal. I also like to know at least one food that I do eat or that’s common there (e.g. “bap” for rice in Korea). That said, given how much I like food, I usually know between three and three dozen food words! Almost every Japanese word I know is a type of fish, for example.
- The symbol for the local money – You may know that the currency in Japan is the yen (pronounced “en,” to my surprise), but it doesn’t do you much good if you can’t tell 300 yen from 3:00 am (most non-US countries don’t use colons for time) or 300 people in writing.
What I left out
Words that you may have expected to see, but that I don’t prioritize learning:
- “Yes” and “No” – Though there are a few countries where nodding or shaking one’s head don’t mean the same thing that they do in the US, this is rare. But even there, smiling and general enthusiasm or expressions of dread and horror generally do the trick. You’ll likely pick them up anyway, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to learn them.
- Numbers – I personally enjoy learning 1 and 2, at a minimum, but it’s not strictly necessary, because people are familiar with finger symbols for this.
- “What/Where/When?” – Usually, you can just say the name of the place you’re looking for (e.g. “Taj Mahal”) without saying “where,” or point to your wrist or cell phone clock without saying “when.” Plus, if you manage to produce a complete sentence/question, the response will be in the foreign language, so better not to give people a false sense of your linguistic abilities.
- “Do you speak English?” – Though I think saying this is more polite than plunging directly into a foreign language, some people consider the question ridiculous. At the moment, many people around the world default to English. Moreover, this is another example when the response you get if you ask in English — for example, silence — will answer the question for you.
- “Danger” and “Caution” – I used to learn these words in each language, so I didn’t accidentally wander into an area with electric fences or target practice. However, most places know that they have foreign tourists and know that it’s in their best interest to avoid an incident: so, they either write those words in English or use big red Xs. No language knowledge necessary.
All of that said…
It’s still fun to look up phrase lists in each language, to see the unique elements. For example, the Wiki Travel Hebrew phrasebook has an entire section called “Authority” that I haven’t seen in many other vocabulary lists. It includes the phrases, “I haven’t done anything wrong,” “Where are you taking me?,” “Am I under arrest?,” and “I want to talk to a lawyer.” Looks like it’s going to be an interesting trip to Israel!