It is the dream of many a traveler to learn the languages of the places they’ll visit. And for those who can, please do go ahead. If you already know a part of a language and simply need to practice, you go right ahead. For those who are planning, say, a two-week trip to somewhere new, however, learning an entire language can seem a bit much…

For those of us  that are not gifted in language learning, it can be a life-saver to have a select few words and phrases ready. By keeping them to a necessary minimum, you will be more likely to remember them (or do what I do and keep a literal cheat sheet of notepaper with you). These are my recommended phrases; your own trip might need some different ones, but you can use these to get an idea of what you might need.


It’s normally the first thing you learn, and often the only thing. Hello and goodbye. Easy enough – and it’s a good way to get your toe in the water. What’s even better, though, is to make sure to actually greet people once you arrive at your destination. Don’t chicken out and just smile. It’s an easy way to get practicing with pronunciation and intonation. You’ll also pick up handy tips like whether it’s normal to smile at strangers, or just nod. In some cultures, greetings are accompanied with a gesture, maybe a bow. Make sure to learn this as well, and to whom you should be bowing/nodding at/etc.


Please and thank you, as your mother probably told you many times, will get you a long way. There may be different levels of formality here… in fact, I have found that many cultures have a greater interest in showing respect to people than those which speak English. Ahem. There might be other demands of politeness, such as a certain word or phrase you should use even in situations where you might not think to say please or thank you.

Yes and No

These are usually quick and easy, though it can be helpful to find out if there are different versions. There might be formal and informal variations, or simply stronger and weaker. If there is a difference between “no (I haven’t been to the beach today” and “no (I don’t want to try fried scorpion)” then you should probably know in advance.

Numbers and Time

You can’t be expected to learn every number between one and infinity, but languages tend to model their numbers after a pattern. One to ten is a good start, though one to twelve would be better, because then you can start being able to use time. There should be a number of set phrases that people use when asking for and telling the time.

Shop Talk

Once you have learned a few numbers, you will be better equipped for shops and resturants. Simple phrases like “how much” and “bill please” should be easy to remember. If you’re a keen shopper and bargainer, you can go the extra mile and learn “are you kidding, that’s way too expensive” for your negotiating.

language learning for travel


My usual tactic is to point to a spot on the menu and say “please?” with an ingratiating smile on my face. This tends to work fairly well. However, there are a few words that are worth learning. Learn the word for either tea or coffee, depending on what you drink. “Can I have this, please?” is also probably better than just pointing. Also if you have any dietary restrictions or allergies, make sure you know all of the relevant words and phrases. In those cases it’s often worth printing out a little card with a translated explanation on it for the waiter or chef.


Mostly, left and right. You’ll be wanting to find places while you’re exploring your destination, and locals will often be able to give you directions. Knowing the basics can help.


There are many words that you can get away with not knowing, simply by miming what you mean. This is not one of them.


This goes with manners, technically. A general “sorry” and appropriate gesture will get you pretty far. However, one of the best phrases you can learn in any foreign language is some equivalent of “I’m sorry, I don’t speak ____. Do you speak English?” Because it is kind of weird to arrive in a foreign country without being able to speak to the locals. People expect it, especially in “holiday” areas, but they will often appreciate you acknowledging that it is not really their job to know every language in the world just in case they meet a traveler.

Asking for Help

This one’s simple, but important. “Please help”, “I need help” or some variation will stand you n good stead, whether it’s an emergency or you just lost your sunglasses. Which might be an emergency, depending on how you feel about your sunglasses. I’m not here to judge.

The ability to communicate, even briefly, with those you meet on your travels is hugely important. Not only will it add depth and dimension to your experiences, it is also part of traveling safely. Knowing how to ask for help or just being able to get someone’s attention when you need it are both important to being as safe as possible on your trip.