At my favorite Bangkok duck-soup stall, the owner lights up every time I say, “Aroy mak!” letting her know I thought the food was delicious. There’s a momentary connection we wouldn’t have had, had I said, “Delicious!” in English.
And now that I often take taxis in Bangkok, having graduated from buses when I was a younger traveler, it’s useful to know “trong pi,” “sai” and “khwa” for straight ahead, left and right.
Most of the taxi drivers I encounter don’t speak English. With Google Maps you can follow the route the driver is taking towards your destination and correct him if needed.
“Dimana kamar kecil?” “Dov’ e’ il bagno?” “Baatharoom kahaan hai?” are Indonesian, Italian and Hindi for one of the most useful and used phrases you’ll need – “Where is the bathroom?”
This is especially needed in countries with a completely different script than your own. If you see बाथरूम कहां है on a door in India, you’ll be scratching your head and crossing your legs, frantically looking for the right place.
I’ve been a traveler for more than 40 years, and I’ve lived as an expat in a foreign country for 28 of them. I’ve been in places where little or no English is spoken, and I’ve done a lot of pantomiming trying to get a point across when I didn’t know the word.
Decades ago in Croatia, we wanted some honey to pour over the thick delicious yogurt the town was known for. My guidebook sang praises for their honey but neglected to list the word for it.
I approached a friendly looking man, worked up my courage, drumming my arms and buzzing in my best bee imitation. Several people gathered around and finally, someone got it and led us to the store where they sold their famous “med” or honey.
I’ve found that no matter how badly I mangle the language, people are pleased that I at least try. For a year, I was telling people in Bali, “I am a river,” when I meant to say, “I am relaxed.”
Everyone got a laugh, including me, and laughter is a great people connector. So don’t be shy, just give it a try, and most importantly, have fun with it.
It always tickles me when I launch into Indonesian, usually asking a question of a stranger, and the person says excitedly, “I don’t speak English!” When I reply in their language, “But I’m speaking Indonesian,” there’s a pause, as recognition sweeps over their face and suddenly they understand.
So, when trying out your new phrases, be patient with the listener. It may take them a moment to overcome their belief that you couldn’t possibly be speaking their language.
Of course, whatever age you are, you need the niceties of “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re Welcome,” “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and perhaps more importantly, “I’m sorry.” These simple but magical words and phrases will enrich and transform your travel experience. You’ll be regarded as polite and gain respect.
I’ve cringed many times, overhearing one of my countrymen raising his or her voice in English, hoping the volume will break through to understanding a language the local doesn’t speak.
As older travelers, we also need to know how to say, “Help!” and “I need a doctor.” Hopefully, we won’t need them, but they’re good to have in our arsenal.
If you have food allergies, you’ll need to be able to say, “I can’t eat…,” “I’m allergic to….” or “I’m a vegetarian.”
Learning a few phrases where ever you travel not only helps you accomplish your goals but also deepens your experience and opens you to cultural experiences you might have missed.
Often, the locals know great places to eat that aren’t in the guidebooks, or interesting temples, artworks or sites you would have missed otherwise.
Countless times I have asked directions in the native language and had the person go out of their way to walk me to my destination. These people connections mean more to me than ticking off a list of must-sees.
If you are taking your cell phone, Google Translate is a useful app to have. It fills in what you didn’t learn and even speaks it out loud when you click the speaker symbol. This is especially helpful if the language is tonal, and how a word rises or falls changes its meaning.
Learning languages has been a lifetime passion of mine. I’ve been learning Italian while I’m on the treadmill at the gym, using the free app ‘Duo Lingo’. It’s a fun way to learn a foreign language and teaches you reading, writing and speaking. There are other apps as well, such as Babble or Memrise.
Here are the basic words and phrases to learn before you go:
Where’s the bathroom? (this teaches you the ‘where is…’ phrase, useful in so many ways)
I need a doctor
I’m allergic to… or I can’t eat…
How much is it?
I am… (you can attach your name, state of mind or body – hungry/thirsty/tired)
Note: Even though there are travel restrictions worldwide, people have not really stopped traveling. Just stay safe and enjoy your trip!
Have you tried learning the language spoken in your travel destination? How has speaking a bit of the language enhanced your trip? What words do you suggest others learn before going to a foreign country? Please share your tips in the comments below.