Essential Language for Travel Anywhere

If you’re travelling to a place where people speak another language, it’s your responsibility to figure out how to communicate! Depending on the place, you might also expect people to speak your language. Depending on what your language is, they very well might! Remember, however, that nobody is required nor expected to speak your language just because you do.

So, it’s up to you to communicate. Sometimes, that means hiring an interpreter, checking whether your smartphone translates that language, or (if you have certain sentences you need people to understand (such as communicating a severe food allergy to every restaurant you enter), making cards with those sentences in the language.

Whatever other methods you use, I’m also a strong believer in the importance of language-learning for travel. That’s right: try and learn the language (at least a little bit). Whether you’re visiting for five days or five weeks, being able to communicate — even on the most basic level — is essential to being a respectful traveller and having positive interactions during your trip.

Never fear, if you’re a novice language-learner: I’ve put together some simple recommendations of which words you might want to learn for your trip. If you’re just trying to learn a few words for a short trip, we won’t worry about grammar or full sentences — this is all about simplicity (even if you will occasionally sound very strange).

Top 10 Essential Words/Phrases

  1. Hello: Regardless of where you’re going, learn a greeting! Some languages have complex greetings, depending on the person and time of day — don’t worry about this. Just find a greeting that works for anyone, at any time, and use it with everyone!
  2. Good: Knowing how to say “good” is the easiest way to give a compliment (you can point to your meal and tell the waiter that it was good), or assuage any concerns (you can ensure concerned people that you are indeed comfortable and good in your bus seat). It’s useful in a thousand different circumstances. If you’re feeling extra motivated, learning the words for “delicious” and “beautiful” is also a great idea.
  3. Thank you: Some cultures use “thank you” less commonly than others, but it’s still a great phrase to know and use. When you’re travelling, you’re constantly a guest in someone else’s territory, and it’s good to share your gratitude for any welcome you receive. Bonus: if you’re up for learning another word, “please” is also polite.
  4. Sorry (Excuse Me): If you’re travelling somewhere you’re unfamiliar with the customs, norms, and simple traffic patterns, you’re bound to mess up at some point. If you bump into someone or accidentally do something rude, you’ll want to know a quick apology. It’s just manners.
  5. Bathroom: Just learn it. You don’t want to play charades.
  6. Restaurant: Whether you’re wandering around a city trying to find a place to eat, or confused as to whether the place you just entered actually serves food (this happens surprisingly often), being able to ask, “restaurant?” is incredibly helpful.
  7. How much?: You’re going to want to ask the price of something. Of course, you’ll also want to understand the answer; if you’re up for it, also consider learning numbers. This can really smooth out your interactions (especially when exchanging money).
  8. When?: When arranging transportation or planning anything, it’s super helpful to know how to ask the time. Even if you sound a little strange, saying “when bus Addis Ababa?” will get your point across. Again, knowing some numbers to understand the answer is also helpful.
  9. Where?: Here’s a great word to combine with some of your other words (remember, we’re ignoring grammar). You can ask “where hotel?” or “where restaurant?” or “where bus?” — super useful.
  10. ## People: Whether you’re trying to get a table in a restaurant or seats on a bus, it’s helpful to be able to communicate the number of people in your party. Just learn the number for how many you are and the word for “people.”