The Bare Minimum Words You Need to Know When Traveling in Non-English Speaking Countries

The first time I traveled to a non-English Speaking Country (Italy), my wife and I took an Italian course and studied a few books to prepare ourselves. To my way of thinking, attempting to communicate to people in their own tongue is far more respectful than demanding they know yours.

The Roaming Wrangler near Levanzo Island.
The Roaming Wrangler near Levanzo Island.

The preparation helped, and I’m glad we did it. But as we prepare to journey to other countries, we don’t really have time to put so much effort into learning foreign languages. So, I’ve compiled a list of the words we most frequently use while traveling so that we can approach our travels with a level of confidence that we can at least get around and purchase what we need.

(NOTE: You will find that a percentage of people anywhere you go seem to know a little (sometimes a surprisingly large amount) of English. But part of the fun of immersing yourself in a culture is learning to communicate with its people on their terms.)

Here are the words we use most, followed by an example of what the phrase or word(s) would be in Italian.

(NOTE: Google Translate and the smartphone app Duolingo are simple and free ways to build your skill with many languages. )

  1. The numbers one through ten (1-10). If you can learn the teens, hundreds, thousands and whatnot, you will certainly find that helpful. But if you struggle with that sort of thing, you typically can get away with listing the digits of a larger number individually. For example, when I tried to communicate to locals in Aragona, Sicily, that my grandmother immigrated to the Unites States from their village in 1926, I was able to say: one, nine, two, six in Italian, and they knew exactly what I was talking about.In Italian: uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci.
  2. My (name of language) is not good, but … followed my my attempt to communicate. This will cause the locals to tune in to you, knowing that they might have to put their thinking caps on. Or, they will start talking with you in English if they know how.In Italian: Il mio Italiano non è buono, ma …
  3. How do you say … followed by pointing at some object that you would like to know the word for. Doing this is incredibly useful for learning a language as you go.In Italian: Come si dice …
  4. Where is … This one is very important when you are trying to find your way around. Below are also some words that can be tied to this phrase.In Italian: Dove …
    1. Bus Station – stazione degli autobus
    2. Train Station – stazione degli treno
    3. Ticket Booth – biglietteria
    4. Bathroom – bagno
    5. Pharmacy – farmacia
    6. Market – mercato
    7. Taxi – taxi
  5. Please, thank you, and you’re welcome. You can’t go wrong with good manners. Plus, it helps counter the widespread notion that Americans are jerks.In Italian: Per favore, Grazie, Prego
  6. How much does it cost? It pays to know this one so that you can pay on buses, assess taxi fees before you get inside, buy things at the market, etc.In Italian: Quanto costa?
  7. I would like … you can then either say the word for what you want or point to it.In Italian: Vorreii …
  8. Common articles, conjunctions and prepositions so that you sound slightly more sophisticated:
    1. The – il (masculine), la (feminine)
    2. And – e
    3. For – per
    4. to – a
    5. from – da
    6. of – di
    7. but/however – pero
  9. Some important words/antonymns. I use these all the time. They are immensely helpful.
    1. Left – sinistra
    2. Right – destra
    3. This – questo
    4. That – quello
    5. Here – qui
    6. There – la
    7. Yes – si
    8. No – no
  10. Sir and Ma’am. Again, being polite will get you a very long way and make people much more willing to help you.In Italian: Signore and Signora

Using these simple words and phrases, you can begin start your journey in non-English speaking countries with a little confidence and with the ability to learn as you go.

BONUS TIP: One of the best ways I’ve found to grow my vocabulary as I walk through city streets in non-English speaking places is to look at the signs on their shops and stores. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

What words would YOU add to this list?