Tips for Getting Along in a Foreign Language: Not Just ‘Where is the bathroom?’

At 18, I found myself on a train from the Fiumicino airport just outside of Rome into the city proper. It was late at night and a man with lots of large rings on his hand was giving myself and my travel companion, Sara, a look that made me feel a little like a cow that was given the chance to look at the butcher’s knife on the way into the slaughterhouse. It occurred to me just how poorly prepared I was for this trip. Even though it had been a long day of travel, I took out my book of key Italian words and phrases, and Sara and I began to quiz each other.

We quickly decided we could only learn a few phrases, so we had to be smart about what we chose. I’d only ever been to one country where I didn’t speak the language – Spain – so I didn’t have much of an  idea yet what would be the stickiest points. We chose mi scusi (excuse me) and mi dispiace (I’m sorry). We wanted to be polite, but in hindsight, there were some things we could have done differently. So that you don’t have to make my mistakes, I’ve constructed a handy list of my Foreign Language Tips:

1) Know how to say ‘Excuse me.’ Sara and I were right about the importance of being able to say excuse me. You never realize just how much you bump into or awkwardly pass people on sidewalks until you don’t know how to excuse yourself when you do.

2) Pronouncing key words correctly is important. You probably think you already know how to say important words like ‘thank you’ wherever you’re going, but be sure that you do. Depending on where you are in Italy, how you pronounce the word grazie changes, and it took me a few days before I realized this. You don’t want to anglicize the most basic words in their language, so practice saying them. If you do it well enough, the people you interact with at the most basic level will never have to know you’re not a native, and you’ll feel like you fit in more.

3) Know how to say what you’re allergic to. Eating while traveling can be a nightmare if you have food allergies or intolerances, so make sure you know how to communicate your allergies to a waiter so you can make sure what you’re ordering doesn’t contain something that will puff you up like a blowfish for the rest of your trip.

4) Choose the right phrase book. Unless you have lots of free time leading up to your trip (let’s face it, who has free time right before a trip?), you’re going to want to purchase a phrase book to take with you. Pick one that’s light enough to carry around in your backpack – you won’t need a big one, anyway, because most likely the only phrases you’ll need are the more basic ones. Everything else can be communicated in a pinch with hand gestures. If nothing else, your phrase book must contain a list of food words. You can pull it out and use it to read the menu if there are no English menus available, and this will save a lot of guesswork when it comes to eating. (Bonus tip: know how to ask for an English menu at restaurants because they sometimes have these available.)

5) Don’t make fun of the language. It might be tempting to laugh at the native language, especially if you’re in a country where it looks and sounds particularly strange. You think it’s funny, and your friends think it’s funny, but the natives probably don’t think it’s funny. After all, this is the language they’ve been speaking their whole life. Don’t do it except in the privacy of your hotel room, where you can laugh all you want about the word school bus (in Welsh: bws ysgol). Respect the language and try to speak it in earnest, and you will gain the respect of native speakers.

6) Know how to say ‘Do you speak English?’ This is the most important question you can know how to ask in the native language. Sometimes you’ll need to communicate with someone beyond the quick ‘Hello,’ ‘Excuse me,’ and ‘Where is the bathroom?’ If an emergency pops up – for example, you get locked into Pompei  – you’ll want to ask if the person you’re talking to speaks English. Even knowing how to say the word ‘English?’ can be helpful, because if they don’t know English, at least they’ll know they need to find someone who does.

7) If you can, learn numbers and directions. Know how to count to twelve in the language (so you can understand general times), and how to say right and left. This way if a person is giving directions to somewhere you’ll be able to grasp what they’re saying.

8) Do some sign research. Signs change from country to country, so especially if you’re going to be driving, do research on what different signs and road markings mean. It’s not always clear, especially if it’s written in a language you don’t speak, and when you’re driving it’s important to know if a sign is telling you to turn around, stop, yield, or tuck and roll out of your car.

9) Try to communicate in the native language if possible. I regret all the times I didn’t just go for it when checking something out in a store or ordering food, especially in the countries where I had a loose grasp on the language. People are nicer than you think, and if you’re trying, they’ll give you props and maybe even help you out! I had a woman in Sorrento teach me how to pronounce grazie, and she praised me with a big grin and applause when I did it correctly. Some of the best, most natural travel moments are stumbling over the language, and the pride you feel when you triumphantly complete an exchange in a foreign language is immense.

10) Have fun with it! The language isn’t there to be an obstacle, so don’t be daunted by it. Being surrounded by foreign words can be fun. Bask in it, because soon enough you’ll be back where people yell at each other in English rather than the colorful, exotic-sounding Spanish, and ordering food becomes just another boring task.

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