Speaking in Tongues: Top Travel Phrases to Know

Not everybody speaks seven languages, and even people who do can’t always step into a foreign country knowing how to speak its language. After all, there are roughly 6,500 spoken languages around the world. It’s never too late to unleash your linguistic genius, but when traveling to a new country, it’s smart to learn at least a handful of phrases.

Hello and Goodbye

When coming up to anyone, a greeting is almost always in order. It’s just good manners. Courtesy is a value that people appreciate in any country. Practice it yourself, and you’re more likely to be treated well in return.

Greetings can be the local language equivalent of “Hi” or “Hello”, or you can go with a “Good morning” or whatever part of the day it is. Find out what’s the norm in your destination. Not all countries favor the cheery “Hello!” and a more formal approach may be preferred.

Please and Thank you

Asking for things politely should be a basic learned instinct, handed down from our parents at a very young age. If you want something, ask nicely and say “Please”. It is a valuable lesson that we are all going to need at some point.

Whether you’re sitting in a cab or on a transport elephant (who knows!) with a driver who doesn’t speak your language, or in a restaurant with an oblivious waiter, asking politely is most likely to get results. Remember to say “Thank you” after that waiter brings your meal, too.

Where is ________?

Being in a strange new place, it’s easy to get lost, so this is a good phrase to keep at hand. You can fill in the blank with the name of famous landmarks, your hotel, or transportation options.

Of course, you also need to be able to understand the answer. Hand gestures can be a great thing, but it’s helpful to know what some standard responses are: “Left”, “Right”, “In front of”, “Next to”, “Straight ahead”, etc. You can even practice the answers yourself. What directions would you give to a lost visitor? Translating this on your own is great practice.

Can you speak more slowly, please?

This is handy when somebody has just rattled off a set of directions for you. Even if you know the words for left and right, when they’re combined into a long set of instructions spoken with the speed of an auctioneer, it can be hard to grasp. Your jet-lagged hearing ability doesn’t help.

If you ask the person to speak more slowly, it can help you understand. Be polite about it, though, and use your “Please”.

Do you speak English?

This can be a useful phrase, but try it with politeness and humility, rather than smugly assuming that everyone speaks your language. Yes, English is commonly spoken in many countries, especially in tourist-oriented places like hotels. But you are in their country, and they’re not required to use it.

Before you go strutting towards a local and asking him things in English, it is only right to try using a few words of his language first. It’s respectful. The locals will surely appreciate the effort and be more eager to help you out.


It’s rare that you’ll have to use this, but in case of emergency it’s good to know. After getting somebody’s attention though, you may need more than this one word to help the locals figure out what your problem is.

Think of possible emergencies that you might encounter when abroad, and either practice those phrases or keep them in your wallet or your phone. “I’m hurt”, “I need a doctor”, “I’m lost”, “I’m allergic to ______”, “Please call the police”, “My blood type is ______”, “My medication is in _______”, “I’m a ______ citizen”, “Please call my embassy”, etc. If an emergency does arise, it helps if you can minimize the confusion caused by a language barrier.

Amy J. is a travel coordinator for High Class Travel NY, an airline consolidator and travel agency supplier. She got into the travel industry because of her huge passion for travel. She lives to experience different cultures.

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