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Essential Phrases You Should Know in the Local Foreign Language Before You Travel

The key phrases you’ll need to travel successfully in a country where you don’t speak the language!

mountains viewed from an airplane window

In many foreign countries these days, even if English isn’t the dominant language, you’ll still find a lot of English. I could go on a whole rant about how lazy the United States is when it comes to foreign languages, and how smart other nations are, but I’ll spare you the soapbox. However, this does mean that you can visit a tourist city just about anywhere and find yourself able to communicate.

In recent years, I’ve traveled to both France and Austria with only a basic traveler's grasp language. My French is rudimentary and my German is worse, but even so, I was able to visit both Paris and Vienna with only minor issues with the language barrier.

But blindly expecting everyone you encounter to be able to speak your language is setting yourself up for pissed locals and bad service. In most of my interactions, I’ve found that the effort to speak the local language is always appreciated, even if you switch to English half a sentence later.

To that end, here are the foreign language phrases that I feel are absolutely essential for travel. (With a few bonus phrases if you want to dig in a little. I see you former gifted kids!)

Greetings: Hello, Good Morning, Etc.

Ok, this one’s probably obvious, but a basic greeting goes a long way. Even if it’s the only word you can say in their language, it counts!

"Do you speak English?"

Asking in their language if they can speak yours, rather than just assuming, wins you major points. I’ve used this phrase even when I know for a fact that the woman behind the ticket counter speaks English (because I heard her speaking it to the group in front of me). Me kicking off the conversation in her language instead of just launching into English meant she was FAR more helpful to me than she was to them.

Bonus phrase: I’m sorry, I don’t speak (insert language) very well. This is usually a fun phrase to pick up, and shows a commitment to speaking the native language even if you know you’re not great at it. I’ve used this one at restaurants or when buying train tickets and had the conversation then switch seamlessly to English without me even having to ask.

Thank You

Another obvious one, but even if you ordered your meal in English, a quick “merci” or “gracias” shows thought and attention.


Not only is this useful for moments when you accidentally bump into someone on the street, but if you’re in a tourist center and get approached by someone who’s clearly some sort of panhandler/scammer and you say “sorry” in the native language instead of English, they’re way more likely to believe that you’re a local and leave you alone.

"I would like..."

This one’s a little less essential, but this is an easy one to pick up and fun to use in restaurants. Say, “I would like” in the native language, and then read your selection off the menu!

"The check please."

In a lot of foreign countries, in Europe especially, wait staff in restaurants is more hands-off than we're used to in the States. (Lean into it! Enjoy your meal without interruptions! You'll never have one of them ask you how your meal is while you're mouth is full and it's glorious!) But this does mean that when you're done eating and ready to pay your bill, you'll have to ask for the check. Get your waiter’s attention in their own language! They'll appreciate it!

Bonus phrase: what do you recommend? Ask the waiters in their native language for their recommendations and you just might get the local favorites instead of the obvious national dishes.

Numbers for 1 to roughly 50

This is so when you ask for the check and your waiter tells you how many euros/pesos/etc. it is you don’t stare blankly and/or get shocked by the number that shows up on your receipt. Remember, you’re not actually memorizing fifty different words. Numbering systems follow patterns. You got this!

These are the Only Essential Foreign Language Phrases!

I’m a huge nerd about foreign languages. I love trying to speak terrible German or moderate French for the amusement of the locals. Give these phrases a try the next time you’re traveling abroad. You’ll find it deepens your experience, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly these phrases become reflexive!

Another way to help with your international trip is to learn how to pack for it with only carry-on luggage! Subscribe to Arts and Adventures today and you'll receive a FREE Packing Light List: the ultimate guide to packing everything you need and nothing you don't!

Love and Shenanigans,


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