Lost in Translation: The Ten Words to Know Before You Go
Updated: Feb 2
If there's one thing I would re-do about my education if I could, it would be to make a better effort to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language. I took some Spanish in high school, and a course in college, but it was never a priority for me. Now that I'm a frequent international traveler (or at least I was, before the pandemic), it would be nice to be able to carry on a full conversation with someone in their native tongue.
It could still happen... as language apps and online courses become more and more accessible, and my list of things to do in the next several years includes getting at least decent in Portuguese and Spanish (for a possible overseas retirement in Portugal or Uruguay). But the fact of the matter is, I will never be fluent in Japanese, Hindi or Arabic. However, I'd still like to visit places where those tongues are spoken. Of course, some languages are much more difficult than others. My rudimentary knowledge of Spanish gets me a leg up in the Romance Languages, but Hungarian (above) or Chinese is a much bigger hill to climb. And it's just not realistic to spend a year learning Polish for three days in Krakow. English is widely spoken around the world, especially in tourist-friendly areas, but that's not always true in smaller towns and villages. And even if they know English, I've found locals are much more friendly and helpful if they think you've made at least some effort to learn basic words and phrases in their home language. So, here are the ten words or phrases I always try to learn before departing on a foreign trip. 1) Please/Thank You - If you only learn ONE word or phrase, this is the one. There are a lot of places you can get by with just this and some awkward charades playing. 2) Hello/Goodbye - Greetings are always welcome before delving into pointing and gesticulating to what you're wanting to accomplish. Extra credit: good morning, good evening.
3) Excuse me - When wanting to get a someone's attention, this is a good place to start. Be aware, though: in most languages, there are different phrases for the 'excuse me' you use to call to them and the 'excuse me' you use if you accidentally bump into them. Make sure you use the right one. 4) Where is... ? - An important one if you get lost. And you will.
5) One, two, three... - Sure, you can use fingers to display the correct number, but better to not look like a second grader if you don't have to. 6) Train, taxi, bus... - Obviously, finding and getting to the right transportation mode can be a big part of any successful foreign trip. 7) How much...? - It's always good to find out the expected price of something before laying down currency. There are a lot of places where haggling is an everyday part of the shopping experience, so it helps with that as well. 8) Check, please. - It the U.S., we're used to getting a restaurant bill the moment the last fork hits the table (or even sooner). But in more relaxed cultures, servers will let you occupy the table until you let them know you're ready to go. This is an especially good one to know if you're on a tight schedule.
9) Water/beer/wine - Pick your poison, but know how to say it. For extra credit, learn to distinguish seltzer water (agua con gas in Spanish) from regular water (agua sin gas).
10) Cheers! - Always a good one for being social. My personal favorite version of that is the Czech version, na zdraví, which a local told me should be pronounced like you're trying to say 'nice driveway' after a few beers too many. That's one phrase I'll never forget.
Do you spend time learning some basic words and phrases before going out of the country? What are the ones that you focus in on?