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Navigating an unknown language: key phrases to learn in any new country.

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When you’re a proud language and culture aficionado like us, traveling the world isn’t so much a pastime for you but a necessity of life. If you’ve ever walked the streets in a country where your target language is spoken, it can feel wonderful and empowering to communicate with the locals - but we know that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’re a French speaker on vacation in China, or maybe you’re studying Russian but find yourself in Brazil for a business trip. It can feel stressful, but learning a few of these key phrases in any language will help you breathe a little easier.


Knowing your manners in a different country goes a long way, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Before memorizing the basic phrases below, it’s a good idea to do some initial research on the country’s customs and cultural norms. What might be commonplace in one country (for example, shaking hands or hugging in the U.S.) might be considered awkward or even rude in another. Get a feel for what’s acceptable in terms of greetings (including body language), eye contact, table manners, clothing, and other aspects unique to the culture. Doing your homework ahead of time will allow you to feel more comfortable and avoid causing any unintended offense once you’re there.

That said, if you don’t have much prep time before traveling abroad, we recommend learning at least the following polite phrases before arrival:

  • “Please”
  • “Thank you” / “You’re welcome”
  • “I’m sorry” / “Excuse me”
  • “Hello, how are you?”
  • “I’m fine, thank you”
  • “It’s nice to meet you”
  • “I’m sorry, I don’t speak….” (insert name of local language)
  • “Goodbye”
  • “Good morning/afternoon/evening”

Ordering food and drink.

Let’s face it: eating is one of the best parts about traveling. Whether you’re there for 2 days or 6 months, knowing at least some food-related vocabulary in a foreign country is absolutely essential. Many people take the easy way out by simply pointing at the menu to order - but what happens if you have an allergy, or you end up with the wrong meal? We’ve got your back with these useful phrases.

  • “Do you have….?”

Insert your favorite dish, or better yet, look up the name of a local dish you want to try.

  • “I’m allergic to….”

Don’t be afraid to let them know what you can’t eat!

  • “Can you tell me where the bathroom is / where is the bathroom?”

“Bathroom” should be one of the first words you learn before traveling to another  country - you’ll be using it every single day.

  • “I’m sorry, this is not what I ordered.”

If you asked for fettuccini alfredo but you got filet mignon instead, it’s OK to politely let them know.

  • “I’d like a beer/wine/water/coffee/tea, please.”

If there’s a certain type of drink you’ll be ordering frequently, you might want to memorize the word for it to save time.

  • “What do you recommend?”

The best way to experience a country’s local cuisine is always to ask the locals - they’ll be able to recommend dishes you might never have tried otherwise.

  • “That was delicious/great/wonderful!”

Everyone loves compliments! If you enjoyed your meal, tell your server or the chef in their native language - they’ll appreciate it.


Asking for directions.

Navigating unknown streets and a language barrier at the same time? It sounds scary, but even the most directionally challenged among us can survive with a few commonly-used phrases. Next time you’re desperately searching for that famous art museum in Paris or a particular plaza in Madrid, consult this handy list first.

  • “How do I get to…?” or “Where is…?”

If we could count the number of times we’ve used this phrase while traveling, we’d be here for years. Like ordering food at a restaurant, it’s easy to just point to a location on the map and wait for a response - but you’ll win more points by making an effort to verbalize your question. Don’t be that person!

  • “How far away is…?”

Besides asking for the best route to take, it’s useful to know the actual distance as well. If your destination is 4 hours away and you need to be back for an early dinner, you might want to consider saving that trip for another day.

  • “Where is the nearest bank/hospital/money exchange/taxi stand?”

Better safe than sorry - things don’t always go as planned while traveling, and it’s good to know how to ask for important services if you’re by yourself.



  • “What time is it?”
  • “How much does this cost?”
  • “Do you accept credit card?”
  • “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
  • “My name is….” / “I’m from…”
  • “I lost my key/keys.”

And if all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask:

  • “Do you speak….?” (insert your native language)

No matter where your travels take you, it’s always beneficial to nail down some basic words and phrases from the language before you get on the plane. Besides feeling more confident in a new environment, you’ll be surprised at the positive reactions you receive from local people. The biggest no-no is simply assuming that everyone speaks your native language - depending on where you are, this could come off as rude or ignorant. With a little effort, you can enrich your cultural experience and add a new language to your repertoire at the same time.


If you’ve got an international trip coming up soon, what are you waiting for? Start mastering those language basics with Mango today, and let us know how it worked out for you on Facebook or Twitter. Find Mango at your local library and start learning for free! Happy learning!

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Britta Wilhelmsen

Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she's not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires' beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

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