most important foreign words

The Most Important Foreign Words to Learn

By Steph Koyfman

Your intentions were great, as always. You had planned to study the language for a few weeks before your trip abroad. But life got in the way, as it always does, and you never really got around to it. The next thing you know, you’re in your first hotel room recovering from a handful of super awkward interactions you’ve had in the country– just on your way there from the airport! At this point, you’re probably frantically coming up with a list of essential phrases you’ll need to survive in a foreign language-speaking country.

Everyone who’s traveled to a foreign language-speaking country has had a similar experience. And the best thing is that you’ve decided not to be “that kind of tourist”– you know, the one who travels to other countries and speaks to all the locals in English.

At this point it might be a little too late to get a conversational grasp on the local language, but you’ve still got time to master a couple survival phrases. At the very least, knowing how to initiate conversations in the target language is more effective than attempting conversations with strangers in English.

This brings us to the big question: what are the most important basic words and phrases to know in another language?

We’ve come up with a list of some survival phrases that will help you out as you navigate through foreign language-speaking countries.

Hello

Sure, not all conversations start with a formal “hello,” but enough of the friendly ones do that you’ll definitely want to prioritize learning how to greet people. By prioritizing greetings like “hello,” you indicate that you’re optimistic about the outcome of the conversation. It emphasizes the potential of the connection you’re about to make. And if you’re traveling with the intention of making friends (in addition to figuring out the logistics of your itinerary), you’ll definitely want to learn how to strike up a conversation with people you meet. Here’s how to say “hello” in 10 different languages.

Please and Thank You

If you’re traveling in a foreign country without a solid grasp of the local language, you’ll probably need to ask lots of strangers for help along the way: a plea for directions here, a translation request there. You’ll want to be able to communicate your gratitude for the help they give you. Saying “please” and “thank you” in their language is a great way to show them how much you appreciate their help. Here’s a quick guide to doing so in 10 languages.

I Am Sorry

It seems like being a tourist in another country comes with an added level of clumsiness and neediness. When I travel, I find myself apologizing a lot–for bumping into people, for asking for directions (again), for missing a social cue… the list goes on. Knowing how to say “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” isn’t just helpful for when you’re in somebody’s way. It’s also a way to acknowledge that you’re a little unprepared linguistically. Most people won’t mind, but it’s a nice way to indicate that you’re trying, and that you recognize your own shortcomings. Before you go, learn to say “sorry” in 10 languages.

Where is the Bathroom?

Unless it sounds fun to mime “toilet” to a total stranger, you’ll likely need to learn the word for “bathroom” if you’re traveling abroad. This is just one of those survival things that isn’t always obvious when you’re looking for it–it’s not like food displayed in a bakery window or on a menu. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and it would make things way easier for you if you could indicate quickly and effectively what you were looking for, instead of having to engage in a game of charades with a stranger every time nature called. This is how you ask for the bathroom in 10 different languages.

Do You Speak English?

If you’re feeling like a fish out of water in another country, the easiest thing to do is to find other English-speakers. But in order to find them, you’ll need to ask if people speak English first. Doing so in the local language will be a little more socially graceful than doing so in English, and you might encounter fewer furrowed brows that way, too.

Learn more than just the basics.