After years of traveling to countries where English is the not the official language, I’ve taken note of phrases and questions that I consistently need to know in order to communicate with locals. These are terms that would make exploring during your gap year considerably easier (in terms of daily life, at least).
Before buckling down to devote yourself to this Go Overseas crash course edition of 'Language Learning 101' before you study abroad, keep in mind that words like Please, Thank You, Excuse Me, and the numbers 1-10 are essential in almost every travel situation -- learn those first. Beyond that, there are a few more phrases that are essential to know as you embark on your language journey.
Here are 7 categories to study before you travel the world or take your gap year.
1. Language Phrases to Know in Transit
Most airports will have English as a secondary language on signs throughout the facility and on visa, customs, and immigration documents. Not every agent however, speaks perfect English (if at all) and once you depart from the airport, you’ll encounter the belly of the beast: taxis, buses, trains, tuk-tuks, peddlers, and more.
To prepare, you should have pertinent addresses written on a piece of paper in the local language, an analog watch at all times, and know the following words (and their answers):
- Left, right, straight, back, turn around
- How long (duration)?
- What time does it leave?
- How far?
- I lost my…
- I am going to…
- I came from…
- I leave on…
- Where is…
- Bus / train station
2. Language Phrases that Will Cover Your Health and Wellness
If you have an illness, medication, or want to be prepared in the event of a travel bug, you should know these health and wellness phrases. In addition to being equipped with a document stating your health issues in the local language, these terms can help further explain any concerns.
You don’t have to have a chronic illness or allergy to be prepared. You should know basic hygiene and personal wellness phrases too. I’ve been the least prepared when it comes to personal wellness, as a woman, and have learned my lesson the hard way in the form of very awkward miming (read: it’s that time of the month again).
Here are some helpful terms to learn as you improve your language skills:
- I am allergic to…
- This hurts [signal body part]
- I need antibiotics
- Where is the pharmacy
- Tampons / sanitary pads
- Contact lens solution
3. Accommodation Phrases You Should Know in Every Language
To make your stay as comfortable as possible, make sure you know these important words and phrases regarding your accommodations. Whether it is a dorm, homestay, hotel, Airbnb, or hostel, the questions remain the same.
They are mostly terms you wouldn’t have to use until you absolutely needed to, which might make your stay extremely frustrating if you aren’t prepared.
Here are the top accommodation phrases to know:
- Toilet paper
- Throw it in the toilet or trash can?
- Can I drink the tap water?
- Bed bugs!
- Air conditioner / fan
- I lost my key
- [X] is not working
4. Dining Phrases that Make or Break Your Restaurant Experience Overseas
I’ve been to cities on a whim where I’ve forgotten to learn essential dining terms in the local language (on top of not realizing that I’d be one of the only tourists in a place where no one spoke English)... It was terrifying.
As a solution, I was forced to impede on other patrons’ private dining experiences to point out the food and bottled water I wanted (face palm). Forget about asking for the bathroom or scrutinizing the check -- I had no way to communicate beyond pointing.
As a lesson, I realized these were key words and phrases I should always be able to say if communicating with hand gestures didn’t seem possible. Gladly I don’t have allergies or an aversion to spicy food. If you do, then put this on the top of your list.
- Can I have… (or in some countries “Can I take” applies for ordering food)
- Bottled Water (indicate still or sparkling water)
- I am allergic to…
- Is it spicy?
- Where is the bathroom?
- Check, please!
- Do you take credit cards?
- Is the tip included?
5. Shopping Questions to Know in Every Language
Many of parts of the world have and encourage haggling as a form of commerce. Even if you don’t plan to buy souvenirs, you’ll quickly come across a situation where you need to use shopping-related language skills. The less you know though, the less you’ll be able to negotiate against tourist price hiking.
So if you are on a budget (or trying to be), take notes of these questions:
- How much?
- Is there a discount?
- Too expensive
- I'm not interested / No, thank you
- Do you have change?
- Where is the bank?
- When do you close?
- When do you open?
- Can I try?
6. Language Phrases that Help When Meeting New People
<small>Photo by Chris S., The Intern Group Australia Alum</small>
Meeting new people and making friends is the best way to learn a local language. But first you’ll have to get past conversation-starter prerequisites like introductions and basic questioning.
If you want to learn from new friends, indicate early on that you are learning and ask them to speak slowly. For the best results, carry a pocket-sized dual-language dictionary to help along the way. I once had a one-hour conversation with a French local straight from an English-French translator paired with my high school French skills. We certainly lost a few things in translation but felt so proud to both learn new words.
Here are helpful phrases to know when meeting new people:
- Hello, my name is…
- I am from…
- I am studying...
- Do you speak English?
- Slowly, please
- I don’t understand
- Do you have a phone charger? (Because what is friendship without it?)
7. Phrases to Know in Every Language in Case of an Emergency
While it’d be great to never have an emergency, stuff happens. We can try our best to travel with caution and use our best judgement in every situation, but there are some words and phrases that are essential to know in the event of an emergency. Sometimes we get hurt, feel unsafe, or are stuck in a sticky situation.
While traveling abroad, learn each country’s respective emergency number (surprise: it is not always 911) and these phrases to help others help you:
- Call the police
- Call the ambulance
- I am hurt
- I need a hospital / doctor
- Help me
- American Embassy
What Other Phrases Do You Think Will Make Your Time Abroad a Little Easier?
Depending on your gap year program, you might need to learn a few extra words. A Costa Rican wildlife volunteer, for instance, will need to know more animal names, while a study abroad program in Italian culinary arts would require a more elaborate gastronomic vocabulary.