For the first part of our year abroad, from February to early October, Nathan and I were able to stick to Spanish or English-speaking countries (minus a couple weeks in Brazil). As intermediate Spanish speakers we were able to get around easily and communicate our needs or concerns. When we got to Greece, we not only encountered a new language but a new alphabet. And from that point on we knew things were generally going to get harder as we made our way eastward to China.
Trying to communicate in foreign countries in which you do not speak the language is probably what makes people most nervous about traveling. We’ve often been asked how we got our daily needs met, how we ordered food or got around the city, especially in places that don’t even use roman letters. I won’t lie – it’s not alway easy. There’s a lot of smiling, pointing and miming involved and sometimes you feel a little shy to put on such a performance. But now, after 33 countries I can say with confidence, don’t worry. You will eventually get where you need to go or find the food you want to eat.
Indeed finding food is the most common interaction with locals. This occurs at either a restaurant or at a market stall. At the stall it’s rather easy to point, pay and eat. A “thank you” and patting the belly with a “mmm…good” (in the local language of course) is a nice touch. At restaurants it can be a little tricky if you don’t recognize items on the menu. In these cases it’s important to be at a popular eatery so that you can bring your waiter to other tables to point at what you want. Yeah, sometimes don’t want to make a spectacle of yourself because people will stare. But oh well. When you’re done eating there is one restaurant trick that always works. To get the check, just make eye contact with the server, hold out your hand and pretend to write on it. Then, voila, the check appears like magic.
For me, the key thing to remember is that you only need to get your point across. Often, I’ll see phrase books that give you long translated sentences such as “Hi, my name is Carmen. What is your name?” For one, this is not a phrase you get to use everyday. Secondly, it is much too long to remember in a foreign language because, unless you’ve studied it, you don’t understand the individual words making up the phrase. It comes across as just a series of sounds that are easily messed up. So I aim to make my phrases as simple as possible. Instead of “I would like two tickets to Beijing, please” I go for “two tickets Beijing”. Instead of “what time is the bus leaving?” it’s “what time bus?” No one cares about your grammar.
Even for these simplified phrases you need some translation help. For this I turned to the free World Nomads Language Guides. I downloaded all the apps I needed before I left and would study them on the plane, train or bus ride as I entered a new country. Guidebooks also tend to have a translation section these days, but the app made it more portable.
Based on my experience in the field, using the language apps and translating things online, I created my own master list of key phrases to know. With these 23 words plus knowing the numbers you can pretty much get anywhere and anything you want. Of course, there are many more words you can learn but it can be difficult to remember more than these. I recommend printing this list than writing out the translations in the language of your destination to help with the memorization process.
Numbers (1-10 then as many as possible up to 100)
Wine (or local spirit)
And that’s it. That’s how we traveled the world with only Spanish and English. But now, I can add Greek, Turkish, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laos and Chinese to the list. At least enough to get by.
Good luck and thanks for reading! ¡Gracias! Σας ευχαριστούμε! Teşekkür ederim! ขอบคุณ! Cảm ơn bạn! 谢谢！