Important words and phrases

We asked you each to name, in English, the 25 core words and phrases that are the most helpful or important to know how to say in the local language before arriving at a new travel destination (outside of North America and the Caribbean). We also wanted you to share any special foreign words or phrases that are important or helpful to know in a particular country, explaining how to pronounce them.

We compiled the lists submitted, and shown immediately below, in order of frequency, is the end tally of those greetings, questions, etc., most often translated. Following that are the extra contributions from individual readers.
Also refer to ITN Contributing Editor Philip Wagenaar’s article “To Speak or Not to Speak” (Aug. ’99, pg. 119).

If you have more to share, write to Important Words and Phrases, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (please include the address at which you receive ITN).

Before visiting a new destination, which 25 words and phrases should you learn how to say in the local language? ITN readers most frequently named the following.

    1. Where is...?
    2. Thank you
    3. Please
    4. Do you have...? or I would like...
    5. Good morning/afternoon/evening
    6. How much?
    7. Toilet
    8. Good-bye
    9. Do you speak English? or I do not speak (___)
    10. What time? or When?
    11. Hotel
    12. Coffee
    13. Hello
    14. Yes/No
    15. Right/Left/Straight ahead
    16. Taxi
    17. Excuse me
    18. Doctor/hospital
    19. Water
    20. Too much
    21. Post office/stamps
    22. My name is. . .
    23. Good
    24. Okay/All right/No problem
    25. What is your name?

Here are additional comments from readers.

When we travel to a country where the primary language is not English, we listen to tapes and compile several index cards with the basics. In spite of what people have told us, we have never been to such a country where EVERYONE we met could speak English.
Note: if it is a language completely new to us, we try to ask questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no.”
At present, we are planning an independent tour of Norway and are tackling the language tapes. I’ll probably have about 50 core words and phrases, including numbers, in my index cards, including. . .

    Do you have…
    - a senior citizen discount?
    - a nonsmoking area?
    - decaf coffee?
    - skim/nonfat milk?
    - hot water?
    - a menu in English?
    I would like...
    - a taxi
    - black coffee
    - coffee with milk
    - cereal
    - fruit, yogurt, etc.
    The (___) doesn’t work.

Nancy Logan
Jamestown, RI

To the list of important words and phrases, I would add these:

    Where is the bank/church/hotel, etc.?
    How much does it cost? (Have paper and pencil ready for the response.)
    I need help, please.
    I am allergic to… (And know the oral and written words for what you are allergic to, ex., peanuts, feathers, etc.)
    What time (or when) does it open/close?
    It is good
    It is not good or it is bad
    It is dirty/too small/too hot/too cold. (You should know how to complain about things that bother you most in hotels or restaurants.)
    I have a bad back, knee, etc. (Any physical ailment that may require special arrangements.)
    I need a lift/cannot climb stairs, etc.

Helen Tepper
Mt. Kisco, NY

Do you have change?
Will you take dollars?
What time is it?
This isn’t clean.
Where is the. . . Internet café/museum/bus station/railroad station/post office/church/park/movie theater?
Jean Rudolph
Moscow, ID

You should always carry a phrase book to finish expressions like “Where is…?,” “I do not have…” and “Do you have…?”
Know how to say “Help!”
You should always know the name of the hotel where you are staying.

If I could add a couple more phrases, they would include “credit card” and “travelers’ check.” They did not make my top 25 because they can be expressed visually by showing the card or travelers’ check.

I used to teach a course for adults called “Spanish for Travel.” I have traveled in over 30 countries and have had some interesting experiences attempting to speak a foreign language.
Betty Houston
Toledo, OH

Years ago in the Soviet Union someone taught us to say “Dobre utra.” I now know it means “Good morning” in Russian.

It worked wonders with the men and women in the hotel guarding the exits and on each level. They would look so fierce and stern. . . until I spoke. Suddenly, they seemed to melt and then there would be a big smile!

Marie Adamson
Altadena, CA

Here’s one that never makes it into phrase books: “I would like X number of stamps for postcards/letters to the U.S./Canada, please.”
Yes, you can go into the post office with your cards and perform the “dumb” show, but how much easier it would be to know this!
Jean Paschke
Melrose, MN

We often travel with a car and driver and no guide. Aside from the common phrases like “Where is the WC?,” here are a few that we’ve found useful:

    Turn left
    Turn right
    Stop here

The “no problem” equivalent phrase in all languages smoothes over many a trivial mistake. In Mandarin, “mei guanxi” (may gwahnSHEE) carries that meaning, along with all of the additional subtleties of guanxi (tip/bribe).

Since we often are in countries where water is an issue, we find it useful to learn the phrase for “a bottle of water/beer/soda with the cap on.”

And since eggs are often undercooked or raw in food preparation, I’ve learned how to say “egg well cooked” (in Japanese, “kata yaki tamago”).

Jane B Holt
Hinesburg, VT

I need a hospital/doctor/police officer/tow truck
I want to rent a room for the night for two people.
Does it have a toilet inside the room?
How do I get to. . .?
Where do you go to eat dinner?
What is the most important historical site in this town/region?
Is there a museum nearby you would recommend we see?
I would like to buy (bread, wine, water, fruit, a hat, etc). Is there a shop you would suggest?
Marion Durham
Tempe, AZ

May I have your attention?
Great in size/Small in size
Jerome Hirt
Horsham, PA

I’m from. . .
Do you know where I can find a…
Train station/metro
How far?
Can I walk there?
How long will it take?
I need a doctor!
Coffee/tea with cream/sugar
No meat/vegetarian
I like/don’t like...
Today while I was out shopping I saw a little book on the counter which caught my attention. It’s called “Point It! Picture Dictionary Traveller’s Language Kit” (ISBN 3-9803130-2-6 — currently out of print, but used copies are available) and it’s full of little photos to help you communicate when you don’t know the spoken language. It’s truly an example of a picture being worth a thousand words.
As a longtime ESL teacher, I know how important learning the language is! I’ve given lectures at universities in several countries, and I ALWAYS learn a “core vocabulary”!
A smile is the best “thing” I pack!
Laura Scott
Portland, OR

In Turkish, the letter C is pronounced as J. For example, caddesi (street) is pronounced “jaddesi.”
Also, there is no Q, W or X in the Turkish alphabet.
Paul Sargent
Rockport, MA

Where is the toilet? (Don’t say “bathroom” or “rest room”; I have actually heard, “What? You want a bath?”)
Pat Long
Mercer Island, WA

I serve as a tour host or sometime guide on overseas trips, doing about three trips a year (43, to date). My native language is French, but I know some phrases and can get by in Japanese, Hebrew and four or five others. With each group I take, I have one or two tour members who will ask me to teach them a bit of the language for wherever we might be headed.
As I point out to them, you could say, “Where is the bathroom?” or simply “Bathroom?,” but when you get an answer you will have NO idea what is being said to you. My suggestion is use body motions for “eating,” for “sleeping,” for “bathroom,” etc. You can wave greetings — a big smile usually does it.
I have found that in almost every country, they LOVE to practice their English.
pim Dodge
Frankfort, MI

Where do I find (___) street/Strasse/rue/calle, etc.?
Would you keep your directions simple, please?
Would you please turn on your meter?
How long will it take to get to (___) from here?
How do I get out of this place now?
I will pay you (10 percent, 20 percent, one-half, etc) for that item which you price at…
I am leaving (the store, booth, table) and will not return.
Where is the closest seafood (German, Chinese, other ethnic or special place) restaurant?
May I have a cold bottle of beer, please?
I would like a glass of the red/white house wine, please.
Please prepare my meat rare/medium/well done.
At what time do you have church services?
Philip H. De Turk
Pinehurst, NC

Additional words to know include. . .
And these are understood in any country:
“a smile”
Barbara Malley
New York, NY

“I do not speak (___). Can you help me?” is so much nicer than saying “Do you speak English?”
And before asking “Where is the toilet?,” say “Good (afternoon).” We often forget to slow the pace — important to many Europeans.
Marsha Caplan
Boulder, CO